Walking Backwards for Christmas: A Tale of Woe from Soggyhall

Walking Backwards for Christmas: A Tale of Woe from Soggyhall, Chapter 1, Solihull,  August 1960,  “Along Our Merry Way”

Soggyhall[Note: The featured picture is a map of Warwickshire as it existed in the 1960s, indicating the locations of the significant places mentioned in the story]

I’d been born in Grammer and Gramfer’s house, as had Uncle Roddy and Auntie Gene before me. My parents and I’d lived there with them until I was nearly five—as had Uncle Roddy; my grammer’s parents, my gurt-grammer and gurt-gramfer Godolphin, until they died; and then my Auntie Gene, who’d moved in after she got divorced. The house was detached, built in the late 1920s, small enough to ensure a warm, cozy togetherness in a family with five children, yet big enough that everyone wasn’t constantly at each other’s throats—a dynamic that continued to prevail, more or less.

But Dad and Mum both went back to work after I’d turned one, scarcely around more than to kiss me goodbye in the morning and tuck me in at night. I was too young to interact much with my great-grandparents, both of whom had died by the time I was three. Though she was quite as lovely as the Hollywood actress whose “handle” she’d adopted while still little more than a slim, pretty girl named “Genevieve,” Auntie Gene’s emotions, I quickly learned, were as delicate as a Ming Vase, and she was usually best tiptoed around.

Uncle Roddy was my favorite playmate in the whole world, more fun than anyone or anything.

He was the only adult who consistently made sense to me and who I turned to when no one else could explain what was going on—when he was there. But he’d been discharged from National Service shortly after I was born. Soon after, he and some fellow squaddies had fallen in with the Teddy Boys—in his case, despite or maybe even due to, his having an HSC. He did take college courses at the local tech when it opened, drifting in and out of a number of part-time jobs, but none of it was sufficient to suit Gramfer. He and Uncle Roddy regularly got into blazing rows, invariably culminating in Uncle Roddy slamming the front door and disappearing for days—often leaving Auntie Gene and me upstairs behind a closed door, quietly crying as we held each other.

So I was largely raised by my maternal grandparents until I was nearly five, and suffered twin traumas of moving (albeit to Edgbaston, seven miles and a half hour away) and getting my first haircut (to which Mum had given reluctant consent; I wasn’t consulted at all). Even then, whilst Mum was there for me every weekday when I got out of school, weekends found me deposited back in Solihull.

Auntie Gene eventually found work at a London talent agency and moved out. Uncle Roddy, when he finally gave up being a Teddy Boy, matriculated to a four-year university, as Gramfer had wanted him to, and turned, for the most part, into the invisible man.

So we became a triumvirate: Grammer, Gramfer and me. House-proud as Grammer was, that had usually meant Gramfer and me together, outdoors, during the daytime.

They were delicious times.

We’d walk along the River Blythe, or along the tree-lined roads leading out of Solihull, until Gramfer would think better of it and we’d leave the road entirely, improvising our merry way—or occasionally, we’d do both. We’d walk through the grasslands, wetlands, hedgerows and woods, eating berries that Gramfer always claimed to “discover” on the way, though I now suspect he’d purchased them at the grocers early in the morning, making them “appear” with the same sleight of hand he used when he made his “magic half crown” appear.

He’d catch butterflies between his cupped hands, holding them gently as he told me what kind each was, letting me examine it in detail. Then he’d set them free, telling me the best butterfly collection was the one kept in my mind, where I’d always know where to find it—not one generated from a killing jar and then displayed in plaques on the wall. The same was true with my “flower collection” and “rock collection.” Rather than press flowers between pages of a book (“as if these books weren’t in enough of a sorry state as it is,”) or keep rocks on display (“we don’t need any more clutter in the corners,”) he’d show me the rock or flower, tell me what it was and let me examine it. Then he’d set the rock down.

He never picked flowers, with one exception. Near the end of day, if he’d find any on our return trip, Gramfer would pick some blue bells, Grammer’s favorite flower, and bring them home to her.

© 2014, 2015 G.H. McCallum and Duvanian Press. All rights reserved..

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G. H. McCallum

G. H. McCallum is author of the Reggie Stone series, the first of which, Walking Backwards for Christmas: A Tale of Woe from Soggyhall, was released on 12 December 2014; look for the second, The Bluebottle Boys, in late spring of 2016. He blogs principally on the 1960s, Victoriana and magic realism.