Robert Etty

OFF TANNER’S LANE

These sentences are drawn from recollections written towards the end of a life

For M.E.

The windows of our cottage looked four ways:
north to an apple tree and a hedge,
west to a turning windmill and clouds,
east to a brick path through the long grass
and south to the shadows under the yews.

Morning and evening we bucketed
gushes and squeaking dribbles
of water out of the iron pump
with its handle curled in a question
arising from the ox-eye daisies.

I am one of two Marys
born in the same village
down the same lane
on the same day
and baptised by the same hand and water.

The other Mary left for Old Hatfield
and asks me in every birthday card
to send postcards with views
of our church and shop
to remind her of the way.

A candle in winter lit darkness
with fear, shaping
in corners and cupboards
the phantoms that daylight shooed away
like a housewife with no time for stuff and nonsense.

War meant a bedroom with sloping white walls
and stained beams like mud rutted over the ceiling,
shadows that swelled when the lamp’s wick was wound
and a coat with white legs and a cap in its glove
that they told me was Father, from France, for always.

Instead of a staircase, nine steps
of a ladder led to the platform we called upstairs,
fastened in place by a thick hook and eye
and smoothed on each tread by the soles
of climbers who’d stepped there before

In thunderstorms, Mother covered the mirrors
and placed the cutlery safe in a drawer;
then she hid under coats on hooks in the parlour
until we called that the thunder had passed
and she parted the coats and came out limb by limb.

The weeks lasted six-plus-one days, but not always:
wet weeks lasted three-, two- or one-plus-one,
when the farm had no work for a farmworking man,
but still his wife conjured broth to dip bread in
and the scullery smelt rich all day.

My jobs were to scrape the moss from the cobbles
with a three-tined fork and a spoon
and to soap and polish the aspidistra
so that our neighbours knew we had standards
at least as high as theirs.

Between Easter and Whitsun,
Mother washed curtains, distempered the pantry
and peeled dark brown lino from sweating tiles,
and smells of carbolic soap and Jeyes Fluid
faded when lilac blossomed.

1988 was too late
(when Mother’s engagement ring was unearthed
from the patch by the hedge where she used to pick greens)
for her to unsay what she’d said to me
as I turned out my cupboard shelf and emptied my drawer.

The day gas was piped to our downstairs rooms
(bringing black taps and mantles
and flames circle dancing on a black cooker)
we stored our paraffin lamps in the pantry
and Mother baked a last fire-oven loaf.

The crackle and crack
of a match as it’s struck
and its sulphurous sting at the tops of the nostrils
bring back
that whoosh, and yellowish gaslight spreading.

I’d chew green and red cooking apples
before the wasps had tunnelled inside:
Mother cured my stomach aches
with Gregory’s powder mixed in water,
but never the urge for the tang on my tongue.

With walking stick handles
we pulled the high brambles into reach
and filled our tins with bleeding fruit,
tasting the bramble and apple tarts
we’d bake when we got back home.

We pestered the men for the cigarette coupons
we traded for treats, like my watch
with its almost undoable clasp
and the Brownie that took eight snaps of life
and left the rest where it was.

Dad and I walked through the fields to the churchyards
at Brigsley and Barnoldby-le-Beck
where we read the names and epitaphs
and he beckoned me over to look at the ones
I might smile at or remember.

Norwegian grandfather’s postcards came first;
then the scents of strange ports in the hairs on his arms
and sea-weariness that he slept away
on the horsehair couch for most of a week
and his temper and sea-stories in equal measure.

When Norwegian grandfather flitted,
he took from his parlour the horsehair couch, the fancy table
and miniature dresser, his bed with the canopy over it
and (worst by far) the harmonium
and the loveliest hour of my day.

Last winds and last tides had shipped him ashore,
to the Grimsby Klondike docks he’d adopted
and into the bedsit on Eleanor Street
where my mother (his daughter) and I took broth
and sat as he sank back to Norway, or nowhere.

They laid his coffin on chairs in his parlour
and dressed us both in black as well,
and my brother, in awe of it all,
whispered to me, “Do we look older, too,
like them?”

Carrier grandfather stopped his cart
at houses with D on a card in the window
to pick up a parcel to take to the Bull Ring
or drop at the station in time for the train:
D for Distance Diminished, Deed Done.

Black gloves gently lifted my brother and me
onto Carrier grandfather’s flower-decked cart
and held Charlie’s reins
as he carried his master slowly (as always)
in time for their last appointment.

It used to be Uncle Bob from Hessle
who filled Christmas stockings and tucked down the toes
of my brother’s and mine an orange with a face cut in:
one would be laughing and one would be crying –
how did he choose whose was which?

How could Uncle Bob’s leg have been bitten off
in a fight with five tigers in India (or the shark
at the bow of his matchwood raft that bit while he beat off
twenty-six others) when on his old school photograph
one trouser leg’s pinned up?

Imagine having to sleep every night
with a grandmother in a shroud already,
whose bedtime was eight and not three minutes past,
who thought burning one was a waste of a candle,
and paused on the quarter to listen to the chimes.

Once only, a holiday week with Woodrow,
the cousin we hated for sharing Grandma
and who we were glad lived in Retford
and wasn’t allowed to play in the street
because the canal was so close.

At dusk in the summer I played our piano
to lupins outside the open door:
The Ash Grove,
In a Monastery Garden,
Bells Across the Meadows.

To travel the lonely three miles to school,
I traipsed through wet grass and risked Clarks’ black dog,
or biked on the bike that was too tall for me,
with the back-pedal brake that I never could master –
half the year dark and three-quarters fighting the wind.

Playtimes we spent swapping pencil boxes,
pencils, rulers and marbles,
playing battledore and shuttlecock
and whipping tops one to another
so fast they disappeared.

The lesson I learned on the afternoon
I scratched off my name from above my hook
for a younger girl to glue her name there
was a lesson my timetable didn’t include,
with a test held back to the end.

All of us knew everyone, but William Wallis knew
everyone better, touring the village stirring dust
with his shoulder-high brush and barrow, keeping an eye
on holes in roads and filling any that opened too wide,
noticing and pretending not to.

On Tuesdays the button lady called
and on Thursdays Cherry Blossom Bernard
with Lifebuoy, Perfection and soda bags
(so that the water was soft on Mondays)
and reasons not to let him come inside.

In the wooden house through the gap in the hedge
Auntie Hales lived (who wasn’t), who knitted pullovers
on the verandah, who’d been an unmistressy headmistress,
who talked me round her blue and pink globe,
and who knew when nothing was what to say.

Auntie Hales and I stayed at her niece’s grocery
that she partitioned off with a curtain of beads
that clattered when a customer came
and she’d hang up the Closed sign at ten o’clock
if she felt a headache brewing.

What can have happened to Mr Bishell?
Did he disappear like Mr Guttridge,
the sweep whose brush we watched pop from the chimney,
who never entered my head again
till his dog’s barking made the men break down his door?

Ida was growing blinder each week
and wept for the pictures she couldn’t see
in the Woman’s Weeklys
I read to her as expressively
as a girl of twelve with a sore throat could.

Mr Halderssen cobbled shoes from 4 pm to 4 am
and if we leant over his stable door
we’d see rows of soles with shillings chalked on,
candlelit mice that his hammering scattered
and tacks like splinters of ice poking through his moustache.

I liked to imagine the day would arrive
when Mr Halderssen pedalled away
and, when customers knocked, his mice saw to it
that no one claimed shoes or boots that weren’t theirs
and children skipped off with dry feet and no blisters.

It was Mother who carried the deep picnic basket
of sandwiches she’d been filling all morning,
and we who complained that the flowers made us sneeze
and the walk to the park had tired us out
and the fields down our lane were more fun anyway.

Our threepenny choice was to walk to Cleethorpes,
play on the sands till we couldn’t stand
and ride home half asleep on the bus;
or ride there, play and try to leave strength in our legs
to walk back when the tide and breeze turned.

North of the Humber was polar country:
the blast on the piers and the paddleboat,
Hull and the road east
to Brook Farm at Elsternwick
and Withernsea (which was too far to go).

Chickens roamed everywhere on the farm,
but we came to know where the eggs would be found –
these nettles, that stile, near the cabbage boxes –
and brought them like gems to the draining board
to still them in perfect dozens.

Other things fade, but never this:
a deal table gold in six o’clock sunshine,
a blue-ringed plate at everyone’s place
and a pie on a platter in the middle
spilling the pink of rhubarb juice.

Mary (8) wrote in my autograph book:
I’ve turned these pages o’er and o’er
To see what others have put before
And in this quiet little spot
I ask you to forget me not.

That day we walked
past the tanyard and gazing cows
and Mr Van Baalen’s hut in the hayfield,
across the two becks and round Rookery Corner,
home.
© Robert Etty