There was a room in my Grandmother’s house that was rarely used, except to pass through. It was necessary to pass through it from the living room to access the stairs to go to the upper floor. The upper floor had two bedrooms and a bathroom. Originally the house had possessed only an outside toilet. The bathroom was a later creation.
Grandma, my Father’s Mother, called it her ‘Best Room’ and just as a Sunday suit was kept for Sundays and special occasions, the ´best room´ was kept for best. The rest of the family called it ´The Sitting Room’, except that hardly anyone ever sat there. Our house, the house where Mum, Dad and I lived, was quite similar in size and layout. We had a sitting room that did get used regularly. I did my very reluctant piano practice there, and it was used for my other Grandmother to die in. She had months in bed there until her death in 1947. At least when she was there, I had no agonising piano practice to do, only the agonising knowledge of an agonising and impending death.
Granny Cooper’s ‘best room’ was a different matter. Apart from passing through it, I can only remember two occasions it was used. When the war was over in 1945, and when all the men had returned - Dad and Uncle Jack from the RAF, Les and Ted from the Army - and when Elsie was on holiday from her job in London and Ruthie had left the ATS - there was a big party. It must have been New Year. No food was allowed in Granny’s best room. That was all served and eaten at the table in the kitchen, men sitting down first, then the women and children afterwards. There wasn’t enough room for all to sit and eat at once. I remember Ruthie, standing back to the fire in the kitchen range, skirt hitched up, warming her backside. Older sister Renie was shocked and said so. Middle sister Elsie, a woman of the world just smiled. I'm not sure if eldest sister, Annie, noticed. She probably was busy with the twins who were difficult, or arguing with her coal miner husband. And Granny, being a peace-maker shushed everyone up. She liked no difference of opinion in her house.
It was only after the meal was over, the dishes washed and the kitchen table cleared, that the sherry bottle and the home-made ginger wine appeared and everyone moved into the best room. A deck of cards was produced and placed on the until-now-unused and well-polished mahogany dining table. The men got a small glass of sherry. So did Ruthie and Elsie, both of whom were women well versed in the ways of the world. Annie and Renie, the oldest of the sisters sipped a tiny glass full of ginger wine. Renie, strictest of strict Methodists winced as she sipped. Mum, a reformed Anglican, who had signed ´the pledge´, had ginger wine. There was ginger wine for Granny and a half glass of ginger wine diluted with water for the children. There were a lot of us children. Pre-war privations and the war itself had not restricted procreation. Nancy was there and her twin sisters. Drew had not yet been born, nor had Jennifer. Cousin Anne was there but not her yet-to-be-born sister Pauline. Cousin Raymond and his sister were there. And, of course, me.
All the dining chairs around the table were occupied and arm chairs and the settee drawn up. The adults played cards. I sat on the arm of a chair watching Mum play. I was surprised that she knew the rules because we never played cards at home, but she did know the rules and embarrassed no-one. Dad was careful to make sure no-one knew which cards he had. Mum cared less about who saw her hand. Most of the cards had numbers on. Numbers bored me. I preferred the ones with pictures on when they came out, especially the joker. Except that they picked the joker out, put it to one side and didn’t use it. That seemed to be a pity. The joker was much more interesting than the ace or the jack.
It was a gambling game, so Granny didn’t play, nor Renie. Granny’s long-dead husband had been a Methodist lay-preacher as well as a butcher. For Granny, gambling was a sin. The players gambled for match-sticks. Two boxes of normal sized matches had been divided up and a big box of smaller smokers’ Swan Vestas. Dad, Ted and Les smoked but never in the best room. Ruthie smoked, too, but no one was supposed to know that. Only ´fast´ women smoked. Mum and Dad did quite well for match-sticks but Ruthie had most. Ruthie´s husband Ted, who had driven an Army lorry in Africa and Italy, lost most of his match-sticks and began breaking in half the ones that he had left, so he could continue playing. We knew Ruthie would give him some of hers because they had been courting all through the war and had just got married.
I don’t remember how the party ended, but I do remember standing at the Bute Arms bus stop to catch the last bus home to our village. It was a brilliant star-lit night, very suitable for a frosty mid-winter. Mum knew the names of all the stars. She was a teacher and taught me their names. Now that I am old, I have forgotten them all, except for the Great Bear and how to find the Pole Star, should I be at sea and get lost.
Years later, I spent time in Granny’s best room again. Mum was having a baby in 1951. It had been agreed that it would be best if I stayed at Granny’s house to be out of the way, and so that I could walk down the hill to my Grammar School. I wasn’t included in the agreement discussions. It mattered to Mum and Granny that I went to the Grammar School. No one else in the family went to the Grammar School, except my cousin Jean on the other side of the family. In any case, she lived about 60 miles away, went to a different Grammar School, so she didn’t really count in the story of The Room. More importantly, it mattered to me that I went to the Grammar School, because normally I travelled to school in a bus whose headboard read ´Scholars´. Not ´Pupils´, or ´School-bus’, or ‘School-Children’ but ‘Scholars’. If the bus conductor didn’t get the headboard roller just right, it sometimes read half ´Chopwell´or ‘High Spen’ and half ‘Scholars’ but that didn’t matter because it was the only bus that left from our bus stop and the only bus that went down to our school and we knew the driver.
I was glad to be a scholar, because I never felt that I was clever enough and being a scholar might teach me to be clever like Mum. Dad wasn’t clever in the same way. He was skilled. His customers at the shop liked him. He was popular with people at church and at his bowls club. But he wasn’t clever like Mum.
It had been agreed that I would stay with Granny and Auntie Renie while my sister got born. There were two problems. I was the agreement, but hadn't been part of the agreement through discussion, and my sister was a brother. A third problem was that I was totally miserable, possibly because I missed my Mum and partly because I was no longer in my school bus being a scholar. Despite the fact that Granny and Auntie Renie were as kind as kind could be.
It did mean that I got a lot of time in the best room. Because I hadn’t got a feel for the best room, because I’d only spent time there for a family gathering, I was uncomfortable there. It intimidated me. I was easily intimidated. I still am. There was no-one in that room to ask about homework if I was stuck. At home, Mum was always at hand and knew how to help me with an answer without telling me what the answer was. She always seem to know what to do to find out. My intimidation might just have been that I was home-sick. There were lovely comfortable arm-chairs in the sitting room and a big settee to sink into. You could stretch out on the chaise-longe under the window to watch the traffic go by on the main road. Care was needed there, in the chaise-longe, because it was old; the fabric was worn, precious and easily torn. In an alcove beyond the dining table and chairs, there was a writing bureau. The drawers were locked. I never found out what secrets were hidden there. I didn’t think Granny was the sort of person to have secrets. But there was a drop-down lid which made a good writing surface. The room also had a fine tiled fire-place — not at all like the fire place in the range in the kitchen in the next room. Although there was a coal-scuttle and fire irons, no fire was ever lit in that fire-place. I was allowed to switch on the electric fire if I was cold when in there. The fire-irons were as pristine as the day when they were bought at the local iron-monger's. Clean, shining, unused, part gleaming decorative brass. So gleaming that I hesitated to touch for fear of leaving finger-prints.
Penny Guisinger in ‘Creative Nonfiction’ Issue 60 says, ‘…we were all readers long before we became writers´. Granny and Auntie Renie didn’t contribute to that thought. They had no understanding that reading could be homework. For the duration of my stay, the ´best room’ became my after-evening-meal-homework sanctuary where I would not be interrupted by the outside world, although I frequently dreamily watched the passing traffic on the main road beyond. It was never recognised by my hostesses that reading could be homework. Settling into a comfortable armchair to read one or the other of my text-books, I would be told by someone just passing through, ‘You can use the writing bureau, you know´. There was no understanding that reading was homework and that by reading, I was developing writing and learning skills.
Granny and Renie were kind to me — but there was no meaningful conversation like there was at home. Mum was the intellectual. Dad was the one who knew what was going on in the world. I fed off them in a way I was unable to feed off Granny and Renie. It was a merciful release when Dad came to Granny’s house with the news that Mum and the new baby were home and I could return.