My mother's housekeeper had great respect for the woman we all knew variously as Ma, or Little Ma, and finally Little Grandmother.
'She's one of the old sort,' she used to say proudly. 'Calls a spade a spade and won't stand any nonsense.'
This was to say the least. My little grandmother was an Edwardian from the top of her head to the bottom of her stoutly clad feet. She had great verve and panache. It would have been wonderful to have heard her play the piano, which apparently she did with great style, and no concesssion to ladylike pretensions, no weaving and swaying and poetic expressions - just attack!
Although she was small, and not in the least bit conventionally pretty, I never met anyone, no matter who, that did not treat her with a respect verging on revernce. It often seemed to me, when I was older, that my little grandmother had assumed a role, something in the way that a great actress will assume a role, and hers was one of great authority. She brooked no nonsense, and in brooking no nonsense gave everyone a fine sense of what they could achieve. 'Have some gumption!' was her cry, and tears were wasted on her. If a bee stung, or a rabbit bit, or there was a crashing fall from a bike, she would pick up the victim, dust them down, and as long as they were alive, tell them 'get on with it.' Or it would be 'poor bee' or 'teach you not to stick your finger near a rabbit you don't know!'
Perhaps it is fanciful but it often seems to me now that it was her crisp attitude that gave us all confidence, made us feel we could do anything, even stick our own fingers back together again. And to hear her talking on the telephone to a friend of the same age was an education in Edwardian manners. No time wasted - telephone calls were expensive - just 'yes', and then at the end no 'goodbye' just telephone replaced, perhaps in the belief that a telephone call was like a telegram, and the more the words the greater would be the bill. Lots of jokes to friends of her own generation, and lots of 'dear'. 'Buckle on your sword then, dear!' 'that's just not cricket, dear!' 'keep your pecker up, dear!'
And goodness she was great at this last. The loss of her sons, only once referred to on a walk 'I wish I had a son still'. Two sons lost. never a moan. just sometimes when I was quite little I would see her staring into the fire, and going up to her would offer 'make a play for you!' 'Yes, make me laugh!' Sometimes a clown, sometimes a dog, sometimes a demonstration of what was called 'dainty gym', all pretend snooty people bowing and scraping and dancing about. Then it was over, and up she got, and 'have to press on', and there would be a fantastic array of delicious sandwiches and cakes, and biscuits, and no more staring into the fire just tea and laughter..
She would meet my cousins and I off our trains from boarding school, eyes sparkling 'kiss, kiss' and 'porter! baggage!' As soon as it was her meeting us we knew the holidays were going to be fun. Didn't matter what we wanted to do, she was always to be counted on. Skating, riding, walking, didn't matter she loved to think of us 'getting on with it' No time for moans, grumbling was as bad as rudeness, both heinous. Loving dogs as much as she did she loved our dogs, and I can never bath a dog without thinking of her, 'wrap the towel!' 'don't let him shake!' and flushed and happy as we both stood back to admire our handiwork, it would be, warning voice, 'don't laugh at him, he won't like that'.
In her youth she had worn knickerbockers and ridden a bicycle in Richmond Park, gone to the Derby on the top of an open bus, and driven a Buick motor car at far too fast a speed. Not content with that she had played not just the piano, but the double bass, from behind which, due to her small stature, it seemed only her hand could be seen holding the moving bow. Although I never saw her demonstrate this particular talent, nor heard her play the piano, I was made aware of her musical ear when seated beside her in church. Just after some poor soprano had soared through some particular solo, a great sigh would go up from beside me, and looking up I would see my grandmother shaking her head and saying in a far from sotto voce 'not enough puff!'
It was the custom never to mention loss, but it was, nonetheless, present in our lives. A school boy's hard won silk cricket cap hanging above the bed, the ribbon from a medal, an old but still treasured bat. Silence above all about everything. We were never to mention the fallen, nor remark on anything to do with them. Instructions long forgotten until I sat down to write The Chestnut Tree, about a family in WWII. and I found myself playing, over and over, for no reason I could think, the music of Gilbert and Sullivan, until, as I finally finished the book, I woke up one day and heard voices from the past saying urgently 'switch off the wireless, never let your grandmother hear your uncle's favourite music - Gilbert and Sullivan!'
At the end of the novel, the mother is finally able to bear to hear Gilbert and Sullivan, and her son, long believed dead, comes back, because that is the wonderful thing about story telling, you can make things better. Little grandmother always made things better. And my favourite creative moment was when I heard her telling a friend the story of a play I had co-written with Terence Brady, and which she had just seen on television.
'You would have loved it, really you would,' she was saying. 'It was full of life, lots of 'gumption!'
Just for a second it seemed to me I was back in front of the fire making a play just for her.