Certain of my friends and family know that I’m something of a coincidence-attractor – smilingly called spookiness. The other day a really extraordinary tale unfolded: the diary reminded me it was the morning of a yearly treat – The Summer Show at the Royal Academy. The number 3 bus stops on the hill outside my block; on I got, debating whether to change onto the tube or ride all the way to town. I went for the latter, envisaging hot underground crowds, and started to read.
At the next stop a large lady plonked down beside me. I gave up reading after a bit and put my things away whereupon the lady got ready to let me out. “No, just re-arranging” I said – which gave her leave to begin. Having told me how she was always a bit quick to ‘read the signals’ she commented on how very happy she is to now be retired and to be able to choose not to travel in the rush hour.
Having told her that in fact I still work I asked her from what job she’d retired – medical receptionist at a major hospital ( “In the two clinics that my sister attended” said I, but she didn’t respond) and how she’d hated it – not the job itself but her sneered-upon status. She talked on, her language elaborate, about later voluntary work in an archive – I commented on having one of those myself and she fulsomely offered her services but didn’t enquire after the content.
Then we started on where had she been brought up – Daddy and her know-it-all (as she put it) Mother having been mentioned frequently by now. The words “A small county town north of London” made me ask “Hertford?” “Yes, and what really annoys me is that when Hertfordshire is mentioned on the radio it’s always about Watford or St Albans, never East Hertfordshire…” Off she went on this hobby horse. “I hadn’t noticed that – I was born in Hertford actually.” She seemed mildly interested in this. I asked what Daddy did – “Works manager at a pharmaceutical company”. “Allen & Hanbury’s?” “Yes” “Oh, my father worked there.” Now that did raise an eyebrow. She didn’t ask who or what he did but continued with Allenbury’s and JCH – the boss – and Daddy and Mother.
The ‘works’ was a very important player in their lives. From the works picnic we moved on to the company drama society. “Oh I wonder if my mum ever went to their productions – she was an actress”.
No comment, but straight – no, windingly – on to stories of tea-time treats and dozens of eggs coming home with Daddy on his bike, and then her too-soon widowed Mother’s Spirella corsets which enabled an ‘elaborate bosom’ to remain firmly in place, and a plump auntie whose underwear was not so effective!. I described the little animals that the lab glass blower made for us if ever we had to go in to work with dad on a Saturday.
We then got on to transport and getting up to London, and I recalled the Green LIne bus that went from Hoddesdon, our little town, to Great Portland Street. “The 715 – very convenient as my mum did a lot of work at the BBC at that time.” “Yes” said she “Mother and I got that bus too and sometimes an actress called Patience Collier would get on.” “That was my mum.” Now that did cause a little interest – at least a pause – “Oh, so your father was Dr Collier?” “Yes” “Well, fancy that, your parents used to come and play bridge with mine on a Saturday night. Your mother was a very commanding woman” I concurred with that. She gave me her parents’ name, and the address in Ware Road, and it did sound familiar.
I have to say the idea of my ill-matched and ever-arguing parents going out together on a Saturday evening, let alone playing bridge seems unlikely and makes me smile – but what a remarkable coincidence is that?
That intriguing conversation took us to central London. We exchanged a few more reminiscences and I remarked what a fluke it was that we’d both ended up in SE 19. She’d asked nothing about my family’s subsequent fortunes, about our lives, about my work, but I gave her my name as I rose in case she thought I was making it all up. She, of course, was going on to the last stop.
The whole amazing encounter offered quite a lot of competition for the Summer Show!
Later that day my niece handed me a little red book found amongst Susan’s things. It is the accounts book from Ripley the Butcher – “Families Waited upon Daily” – and records monthly all the transactions between my family and the butcher between 1946 and 1958 when we moved up to London (though I see that their first stamps are even more archaic – 1845!).
I remember the Saturday expedition to the High Street with my father to fetch the weekend shopping – one bag for the vegetables, the other for the Sunday joint – up Lord Street and passing the forge on the way.
The account book gives an amazingly ordered picture – an insight into a bygone era, a passport to another hierarchy. Our family life in fact was emotionally chaotic and dangerously unruly – held together, it felt to me, by the force of my mother’s ferocious and unyielding lists! Unlike the family above we did not feel the paternalistic grace of The Company; ours was coloured by the bitter struggle of the inventor, the constant and egocentric anxiety of the performer, the hazardous excitement of new ideas and ventures.
Thinking about the weaving together of accidental finds I was taken with this inspiring sight – a colossal funnel tunnel in Houston made from woven-together waste wood.
I’ve been lucky enough to have a lot of flowers around these last few days, both allotment-picked and lovely bunches brought by friends – thank you. The plot has yielded a glorious glut of blackberries too, and when I get back from a few days in Brittany I hope the tomatoes will be ripe, the little dears….