Happy birthday, Nan

My nan would have been 85 today. Her passing earlier this year was a devastating blow to the family, and her absence is still felt very strongly.

William & Sheila with their favourite book

Today is also William and Sheila’s 65th wedding anniversary. Theirs was a very emotional and powerful bond. Like all marriages, there were ups and downs, good times and bad. But I like to remember the good times, and there were certainly plenty of those. One thing I fondly remember of my grandparents is the amount of laughter to be had when they were together.

I can’t think of a better way to mark Nan’s birthday, and their anniversary than to share a favourite passage from the book dedicated to her memory. It Never Was You tells the story of two people who, despite all their differences and the struggles they face in post-war Britain, manage to fall head over heals in love and revel in each other’s company. There is plenty of William and Sheila in Harry and Mary.

Nan loved reading William’s writing, and often dipped in and out of the printed books. There was always a smile on her face and a sigh of contentment when she did so. So here’s a passage I think she’d have particularly savoured.

Happy birthday, Nan. Love you xx

Harry departed Rosario for Cordoba punctually, thanks to Juan Peron who, like all good dictators, made the trains run on time. He secured a seat in the observation car at the rear of the train which gave panoramic views of the countryside through large picture windows. The two hundred and fifty mile journey was scheduled to take some six hours so Harry kicked off his shoes and settled himself comfortably to enjoy the scenery. The first leg of the journey, some one hundred and fifty miles west to the small railhead at Villa Maria, would be across the open pampas, the Argentinean sector of that vast treeless plain which lies south of the Mato Grosso and home to some five million steers, those vast herds which drove the country’s economy. From there, the train would travel North West into the easternmost foothills of the Andes. Harry was particularly fond of Cordoba, its quiet provincial atmosphere, its hospitable people but above all the scenery. The city had once been the seat of Spanish colonial government for the region and its architecture and culture was emulate of the city in southern Spain from which it took its name. He gazed contentedly through the window at this ocean of lazily undulating grass. He smiled. What was it Francisco Chavarre had said? ‘My country is only half made up.’ He looked out at the vast emptiness of this half-made land as the pampas rolled interminably past in great sweeping arcs. His eyes moved across the horizon. The summer sun had not yet attained its full power and the grass, still remarkably green from the late spring rains, was flecked with a myriad rash of the bright yellow wild flowers known as ‘pampas roses’. The huge beef herds  were still far to the north but would move slowly southwards as the season advanced to feed on this bounty before the January sun scorched the plain. Then the hills came into view.
     Unlike many of his peers, Harry did not frequent the bars and bordellos of the ports, but preferred to use any free time to explore places of interest and to see as much of the country as he could. He was to learn in time that recounting such experiences was to prove a most effective, if not wholly infallible method of subduing Mary’s runaway chatter. He did not succeed in actually closing her mouth, which hung agape in awe at his stories.
     He told her of trips to Manaus, the great former rubber ‘capital’, a thousand miles along the Amazon, deep in the vast Brazilian rainforest.
     ‘Did you ever see any of them Indians, Hen? You know, them ones with the piss pot ’air cuts and the poison darts?’
     ‘No, darling.’
     ‘Bloody good job though, eh? I mean you wouldn’t want to go play’n 501 up with those nasty buggers, would you?’
     Of taking the train from Mollendo Puña in Chile and then by funicular railway to Lake Titicaca, high among the majestic peaks of the Andes, those vast palaces of nature whose bright blue sunlit summits seemed to mingle with the sky.
     Of the spring carnival in Rio de Janeiro, a three day orgy of the flesh…
     ‘What’s it all in aid of then, Hen?’
     ‘The Rio carnival? It’s a religious festival marking the beginning of lent. The big blowout before the fast. Like Mardi Gras, you know, Shrove Tuesday and all that.’
     ‘Three days on the piss for lent?’
     ‘Look, I’m talking about Rio here, not Bishops Stortford. It’s the time for love.’
     ‘Don’t sound very religious to me, all that sing’n, danc’n and knee trembl’n. Tell you what though, it must beat the shit out of toss’n frigg’n pancakes.’
     Of the Rodeo La Plata, when gauchos, dressed in their finely embroidered boleros, their billowing troos tucked into delicately tooled calf-length leather boots, display their skills at cattle wrangling with the ‘bolo’, a type of lasso carrying a heavily weighted leather ball at its end which winds around the legs of the unfortunate steer, bringing it down…
     ‘Does it hurt them, Hen?’ She turned her head to look up into his face. ‘I mean it’s no joke being pulled arse over tip with a sodd’n lasso, is it?’
     Laughing, he shook his head. ‘Compared with what is to come, that’s the good part.’
     He described, without too much of the gory detail, the scenes in the abattoir. Her face screwed up in horror as she listened. ‘Oh Jesus, that’s awful, those poor things. Can’t they do it any other way? Christ, I don’t think I could face another bit of steak, even if you could get it on the rations.’
     ‘You can always eat fish, sweetheart.’
     ‘Yeah, ’course, they have a much better time, fish. Hooked up by the roof of their mouth or caught in a bloody great net and tipped out to suffocate on the deck of some poxy trawler. What did you have to tell me all that for, anyway? Now I shall probably starve meself to death.’ She snuggled into him. ‘Hen?’
     ‘Yes love?’
     ‘When all sweets come off the rations, will you buy me about a hundredweight of jelly babies?’
     ‘Absolutely! But why jelly babies?’
     ‘Well, people don’t ill-treat jelly babies, do they?’
     ‘Of course they do, they bite their heads off.’
     ‘Oh, you rotten bugger!’


Extract from It Never Was You by William E. Thomas, Chapter Seven
(c) All rights reserved

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