Eight O’clock. The workmen have all gone to work, it is so quiet.
Ethel starts readying the children for school, a well-rehearsed drill, each child helping another. They are quickly dressed and out through the front door and on their way to school. It is almost like the workings of one of Charlies’ recently repaired clocks that are lined up on the dresser for their final testing.
The two boys are making a racket banging their spoons on the plates like drums. Alan, at just over two, hardly says a recognisable word, just his own special language that only his brother Donald can understand. His mother says that Donald was talking non-stop the minute he was born. Alan’s was a difficult birth and the only one of the children to have been born in a hospital. There was a fear that his hearing may have been damaged, and this could be why he lets Donald speak for him. At fourteen months apart, they are often taken for twins. Like a lot of late speakers, once Alan did start to talk properly at the age of four, it all happened at once, as if he was just waiting for the right moment.
Ethel hears the factory hooter calling the men to work, Charlie will be there by now. She turns to look at the clock, and she feels a shiver as she sees the pack of sandwiches on the dresser.
Smiling, she whispers to herself. “Charlie, you’ll forget your head one day”.
The sandwiches are put on the marble slab in the larder. He will be back at midday, then she will see his sheepish grin as he passes the kitchen window—this is not the first time, and probably will not be the last. She puts some more coal on the kitchen fire and replaces the fire guard, then lifting the boys down from the table she sits them on the little seats that are on each side of the hearth fender. The kitchen has the only fireplace in the house that is regularly used, and the two boys soon make it their favourite spot.
The clear sound of the shiny brass school bell rings, the children will be filing into school, it is nine o’clock. She hears a softer sound from further away, the mournful sound of the funeral bell. First a muffled tone then a full one, probably another ‘flu victim, one of many in recent weeks. She pauses for a moment thinking of poor Mrs. Thompson, and that young boy, who was the same age as Bernard, they were both from just around the corner in Cowley Avenue.
Another shiver, more intense this time, as she thinks how easily it could have been this family. She hesitantly does the sign of the cross—not a thing that she has ever done before, both she and Charlie have always been free of any religion. Looking down at the two boys she thinks out loud. “Should I have let Bernard go to school? he so wanted to see his friend’s, but he was still a bit pale and so was Chrissie, I hope they will be alright”
Pulling herself together, she grabs the pile of washing from the basket. Today is washday. She fills the copper tub that is built into the corner of the scullery, a handful of soda, a quick stir with the wooden copper stick which is bleached white with the years of boiling soapy water, as is the heavy pine lid that she puts on top. Into the firebox goes the ‘Daily Herald’. The headlines do what headlines are designed to do; they catch her eye. ‘More ‘flu deaths in London’. She quickly piles on some sticks of wood and puts a match to the paper and watches the headline burn away. If only it was as easy to stop this horrible disease. Working quickly, as if to change the subject of her thoughts, the copper is soon steaming with the days wash, and the firewood is crackling and blazing.
Now best of all, some bread on a long fork, toasting so quickly on the flaming firewood that it burns the crust, but all the better for that. Donald is at the scullery door, his face is lit up by the brightly burning copper fire, his half-closed eyes are sparkling in tune with the sparks of the firewood. He can smell the burning crust and is licking his lips at the thought of some toast. For a few moments the boys will be happy, having something so nice to eat is one way of keeping them quiet.
Iris smiled as she talked about our home.
“I loved our house, we had some nice bits of furniture, mostly handed down from Dad’s family, there were some lovely pictures and fine china, they looked a bit out of place with the rest of our stuff though. There was the big armchair with soft green velvet cushions and lovely curved woodwork, it was big enough for three of us to sit in it at the same time. There was the huge ornately carved picture frame with a painting of ‘The Charge of the Light brigade’, we were told that a member of the family was there on that very day— I always took this with a pinch of salt, especially after hearing that another Weguelin had finished the Unfinished symphony”.
Ethel is sitting back in that same green armchair, she looks around the kitchen and on the dresser is the green alarm clock, a wedding present from her sister Tina. She reaches over to wind it up and to set it right as St Peters Church bell rings ten O’clock. She also winds the other clocks all lined up, each one telling a different time, they are left alone as Charlie has asked her to do, they must be tested for at least a week. Next to the clocks is an old brown teapot with a broken spout, inside there is normally the money to pay the bills, she takes it down to see how much is left for the rent and for the tally man. Once, there would be pound notes but now there are just some florins and a few shillings. Without touching the coin’s, she can see there is not enough to pay anyone. Putting the teapot back on the shelf, she works out in her mind how much Charlie will bring home on Friday. It still won’t be enough, but the gasman is due to empty the meter soon and there is always a rebate—all in pennies but it all counts. Perhaps one of the clocks that have been repaired will be collected and paid for.
She thought that these days were a thing of the past, when just a few years ago during the depression, the factories were closing, and every family had to count their pennies. The men would do any job to earn a crust of bread, luckily Charlie was able to put his skills to work and earn enough to feed us. Iris went on to tell me about the good days, when the factory was working full time
“After the depression, and as soon as the Airscrew was working again, things were so much better. We all had new clothes and Mum bought all the things that were needed for the home instead of making do. Dad who was the foreman in the ‘tipping shop’ had the first chance to buy any wood that was not good enough for a propeller but nice enough for homemade furniture, he also bought the sheet copper that was not the right quality for tipping the propellors, this had to be perfect. Dad was already making the horns for gramophones, and copper urns, besides the clock repairs, and selling them to people who had the money to buy them. He had great plans to have his own clock making business and spent any spare money we had on special tools such as the expensive Swiss-made pole lathe, for making the small clock parts. His workshop at home was in the boy’s bedroom, the long pole of the lathe could be seen sticking out of the window nodding up and down most weekends, he was a very busy man”.
Back in the kitchen Ethel reaches for Charlies’ shirt she lifts the lid of the copper, the water is already bubbling, out comes the washboard, a quick scrub on the collars and cuffs and back into the boiling water. She takes a deep breath, that clean smell of ‘Sunlight’ soap, there is something special about washday, it’s a fresh start for the week. Looking around the kitchen, with the sun shining through the window, the steam from the copper is lit-up as it drifts slowly across the room and over the dresser. It shows up the dust that has laid there for these last few weeks, she thinks of spring cleaning—but perhaps, not today.