free range - A CHILDHOOD MEMOIR
BY DEBBIE BALLIN
free range - A CHILDHOOD MEMOIR
BY DEBBIE BALLIN
Grandma has come to stay at our house because she is poorly. This means we are all swapping bedrooms. Grandma is sleeping in Jessie’s old room and Jessie is moving in to ours. The best bit is that Miranda and me are going up in the attic.
We are having Ben and Pat’s old room. It’s like a den in there. It’s got a sloping ceiling made out of wood and is right at the very top of the house so Mum and Dad can’t hear you talking in bed.
We are helping Mum tidy up the stuff from our old room. She says if we get it nice and clean, we can sleep up in the attic tonight. Miranda keeps sending me down to the kitchen to sneak for food. We are having a midnight feast. So far I’ve got some raspberry jelly cubes, two packets of salt and vinegar crisps and a Welsh cake. I’ve hidden them under the clothes in the back of our bedroom cupboard. I was balancing on the Welsh Dresser to reach the biscuits Mum hides on the top shelf, when Dad came in. He shouted, “get down from there now.” It gave me a fright and I nearly fell off.
Grandma has been at our house for a long time now. I don’t know when she is going back to her old house. When we went to Mass on Sunday, Mum left the pork and cider casserole on the stove cooking, so that it would be ready when we got back. We all came in from Mass starving. You have to fast for a whole hour before Mass if you are having communion, you can’t even have a bag of crisps or an apple.
When we went in the front room, Grandma was asleep on the couch and Honey, our dog, was cuddled up next to her snoring. Mum went in the kitchen. Then we heard her give a big scream. We all went rushing in to see what had happened. The casserole was all gone, nothing left but a few gristly bits sitting in the bottom of the pan. Grandma and Honey had eaten it all. I think she must’ve got hungry when we were out.
Our best friend, Joanna Portsmouth is scared of Grandma. She says she doesn’t want to come to our house to play anymore. So now we have to go to her house instead. One day, Grandma told her off when she came to call for us. She knocked on the front door and Grandma answered it. Grandma thought she was a boy from the butchers come to deliver the meat. Joanna said, “I’m not a boy, I’m a girl.” Grandma shouted at Joanna and said,
“You are a very insolent young man. We don’t want any deliveries from you ever again.”
We don’t even have a butcher’s boy. Mum just goes over the road to Smiths to get the meat.
Grandma was fatter and cuddlier when she lived in her old house. I liked going there. Sometimes I stayed the night and slept with her in her big bed. On her dressing table is a pot with a lid made of shiny glass diamonds. You can take it off and inside is some crumbly pale pink powder that smells like Parma Violets and a puffy thing. There is a green glass tray with a black and silver hairbrush set that has swirly patterns made out of the inside of shells on it. I used to like sitting on the green silk stool, pretending to be a grown up, brushing my hair and puffing the powder on my face.
Some of the things in Grandma’s old house are a little bit creepy. The wardrobe is dark and giant, it is big enough to hide inside and smells fusty like old people. It has carved wooden feet like lion’s paws with strange things shaped like flowers underneath them, made of green and orange glass. On the shelf above the fireplace in the front room are two green china cats, with long thin bodies and scary faces that wink at you.
At bedtime, when I used to sleep the night at her house, she made me hot milk with a spoon full of sugar in it and we sat in bed drinking it. When the milk cooled, it would get a disgusting skin on top. I liked picking it off dangling it from my fingers, then wiping it onto the saucer. Underneath the skin was the best bit, the sugary milk right at the bottom. In bed, Grandma told me stories about the dogs and cats she had when she was a little girl, and about her brother Clarence who lived in Africa and bought her presents back from there.
Now Grandma lives with us, she doesn’t tell stories. She just shouts all the time. One day Mum wanted to take her to Porthcawl in the car, but she got furious with Mum and banged on the window trying to get out. A man came past and Grandma shouted,
“ Help me. This person is trying to kidnap me. I don’t know who she is.”
Mum tried to calm her down because she was getting so angry and she said, “ Go away. I don ‘t want you. I want Frances.”
Mum said, “I am Frances,” but Grandma didn’t believe her. Mum looked really sad and went all red in the face.
We have a new babysitter now Grandma is staying with us. She looks after Grandma mostly, but she babysits Miranda, Raf, the little ones and me if Mum and Dad go out. Ben, Pat and Jess are too big to need a babysitter. She is called Miss Rosina Merritt, but we call her Miss Merritt. She is old but very kind. She has a soft wrinkly face and wears a cosy brown cardigan that she knitted herself. Miss Merritt is at our house everyday. She is teaching me two new things, like baking and crocheting.
Last week we made jam tarts together. She showed me how to make the pastry. First you put the flour in the bowl, then you cut the butter into little pieces and squish it into the flour with your fingers until it has all disappeared and looks like a bowl of crumbs.
I got all messy and spilled flour all down my front. I even got it in my hair. Next you put in some water and squeeze all the crumbs together into a big lump. Then you roll it out. I couldn’t do the rolling on my own. The pastry kept sticking to the rolling pin and going all holey. Miss Merritt helped me. She let me cut the circles out with the pastry cutters. The cutter has curly edges and when you press it in and lift it up sometimes the pastry sticks inside. You have to poke it out with your finger. Then you press the circles into the holes in the baking tray and put a spoonful of jam in each.
There was lots of pastry left over once I had cut all the holes out. Miss Merritt said I could make whatever I liked with it while the jam tarts were cooking. I made a pastry snowman with currants for eyes. There was still some left after that, so I ate it up when Miss Merritt wasn’t looking.
Miss Merritt is very good at sewing, knitting and crochet. Mum can’t do knitting and she hates sewing. When Mum and Dad went to the PTA dinner and dance, Miss Merritt let us stay up with her. She showed me the first part of crocheting, where you make the stitches into a chain. It’s a bit like tying knots but you have a hooked needle and you have to loop the wool around and hook it under with the needle. She has lots of different coloured wool. I chose a pale yellow one for my crochet. It’s quite hard to do. I kept forgetting which way to loop the wool around.
While we were doing it we watched the TV and it was Miss Merritt’s favourite programme, ‘Come Dancing.’ The ladies wear floaty frocks of pink and green. They have their hair in a bun, with sparkly jewels in it. The men wear fancy suits and frilly shirts. They do dances like the tango and the waltz, spinning each other around and around. Miranda and I wanted to try and copy them but Miss Merritt said we had to sit nicely if we wanted to stay up late.
It’s good Miss Merritt is here to keep an eye on Grandma. When Grandma first came to stay, we got home from school one day, and Miranda went up to our bedroom to feed her terrapins. She has two of them. She got them for her birthday. Terry and Pinny. Miranda keeps them in a tank in our bedroom. When she looked in the tank, only one was in there. She says it was Terry, but I don’t think she knows which one is which. She came running downstairs to tell Mum and ask if she knew where Pinny was. Mum was kneeling on the floor in the sitting room cleaning the carpet. Honey had been sick all over the floor. Grandma was standing next to her and Mum was saying,
“What on earth did you give her to eat this time? It smells like fish.”
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