I’ll readily admit that I under-achieved in my life, though some would say, due to the type of childhood that I had, I probably ended up over-achieving, and I owe a debt of gratitude to my grandparents for that. They basically raised me, and all the good in me came from them.

After serving in World War II, my grandfather spent the rest of his working life as a docker, loading and unloading ships. He’d do twelve-hour shifts, leaving home before sunrise and returning after sunset. A tough life, but his generation was used to that. He was “old-school” and a strong father-figure when I needed one. “Be humble and work hard. Respect your elders. Be strong and don’t let anyone push you around.” (Something that served me well during my school days.) He taught me so much, and thankfully, there are many things I still remember of him: the cigar he always carried in the breast pocket of his shirt; the shoes he’d religiously spit and polish every day before wearing them (a habit from his army days); the ridiculous amount of stubble that grew on his face (he shaved twice a day, but it wasn’t enough); the dark grey suit he wore when he went out in the evening to meet his mates. He only had one suit, but he wore a different tie every time. He loved his ties. He and his mates would always meet at the same club and sit at the same table (it was their table!). They’d moan about the same things, drink their usual quota of beer, then leave at the same time to get the last bus home.

He led a simple life, ritualistic in many ways. He was old, and had been through much adversity, but he still cared about his appearance. It seemed they all did. A smart generation. An elegant one.

With adversity comes creativity.

When I was growing up, Britain was in yet another recession and for many families like mine, money was in short supply. Cost-cutting exercises needed to be implemented whenever possible. I specifically remember bath night: it was once a week, on a Sunday. The bath water was shared, and it went by seniority, oldest to youngest: my grandfather, my grandmother, then me. The water was dirty and cold by the time I got in it! Seems disgusting now but it was a treat back then.

My clothes were hand-me-downs or ones my grandmother made for me. I was sent to a neighbour’s house for my haircuts. A sweet old lady, once upon a time she was a hairdresser, and she took on the task of cutting the hair of all the young boys like me who lived in the street. Being a widow, it gave her some company, and the sense that she was still needed in some way.

As for medical care, my grandmother treated my head lice (nits) with vinegar and water. I remember sitting in a chair for hours and hours, head burning and smelling like a fish ‘n chip shop, while she repeatedly went through my hair with a comb.

She cured my headaches by laying me down in a dark room and placing a damp cloth over my eyes and forehead. Honey was her favoured option when treating all my cuts and bruises, and there were many. Toothaches were soothed by taking mouthfuls of warm salted water, though, for my grandfather, there was only one foolproof way to cure toothache: whisky. He wasn’t the best when it came to home dental care, bless him. I remember when I had a loose tooth that was giving me pain. He tied a piece of string to the tooth and then to the handle of a door. He thought that if he opened the door with force, it would pull the tooth out of my mouth. After the third failed attempt my grandmother heard my screams and came running to my aid. I remember his words now, “Always worked for me when I was a boy. Maybe the string’s not strong enough.” Ironically, my grandfather lost all his teeth before he was fifty!

Decades have passed since they went, and I still feel their loss. They clothed me, fed me, took care of me, loved me.

They were my grandparents.


Nick Evans

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