Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Wash Day

"Go and wish your Auntie Vi a happy birthday."
It was January 9th 1950, Christmas was over and I was bored. So I went.

My Auntie Vi lived only a few streets from our house and she was my favourite. She always was so welcoming, would give me a hug and invite me inside her house for some tit-bit to eat at any time of day. She was always worried about my small body, that in her mind needed building up. Compared with my Uncle Jim, who was a big man and portly with it, I suppose I had. So armed with a card and small present from my mother I trotted off round to their cottage close to the church. He was a hard working, hard talking man who saved every penny he could, to establish himself and Aunty Vi in a decent home. He had been born at Owslebury to farming folk at the turn of the century and had broken from the mould set for him as a farm hand as soon as he could. He was foreman in the cellar of the local Brewery. That was a responsible job.

Their cottage was a tall, dark, brooding building shaded by immense sycamore trees. Built close to the road it had a huge garden stretching back a long way, on which Uncle Jim worked unceasingly. At nights and weekends he could always be found there nurturing the finest cabbages, the largest carrots and most succulent tomatoes. He grew everything; currants, rhubarb and apples. Right at the back of the garden was a pig sty which contained one Wessex saddleback pig.

"Look at tha-at gurt thing," Auntie Vi would say if we walked up the garden together. "She's a eatin' enough for two." As if in confirmation, the great beast would snuffle and snort along the planks that formed the sty and would gobble anything that was thrown into her pen. She was in fact eating enough for eight as some time later seven piglets were produced.

Closer to the house it smelled much sweeter. Except in the winter months flowers would be in bloom and in summer just entering the garden, was to visit a different world where bees and butterflies could be found and the scent of that perfumed garden was overpowering. I can close my eyes even now and hear that summery sound of insects humming and buzzing, hear the distant voice of Auntie Vi with her broad Hampshire accent and smell that delicious sweet summery smell of the garden. Quite close to the house was a range of outbuildings that contained Uncles Jim's garden tools and next to that a wash house. Between this outhouse and the main house was a delightful rock garden that was Auntie Vi's domain. Surprise visits to the house would inevitably see her couched over little flowers and ground covers. She would be weeding and tending the plants and talking to them to encourage them or chide them for being so untidy.

When I arrived at the house that grey winter morning, I discovered it was wash day. In those days the wash day was a significant days work. It was Monday of course, just like the nursery rhyme. As a walked round to the back garden I could see the billows of steam coming out the wash house door and in the garden area over the lawn, the clothes line was already half filled. The washing was fixed to the line by split hazel pegs and the whole line was supported by a wooden clothes prop, both obtained from the local gypsies.

Auntie Vi was in the wash house, rinsing and blueing the sheets. In the sink by the window was a wash board and a great lump of hard yellow soap. In the back corner was the copper steaming away with the glow of a fire coming from behind a small barred opening in its brick wall. There on the side wall she plunged the sheets into great tin baths, filled with cold water, one of them the colour of deep ultramarine blue. Once rinsed the sheets were then put through the mangle. This device was placed in the centre of the room and the squeezed linen was dumped into a waiting basket. She smiled at me with her warm but sad smile, as she carried out each task. I looked on her with admiration. Even on this cold day her sleeves were rolled well up. She partly wrung the sheets over the rinse bowls and flapping them out fed the edges through the wooden rollers of the mangle. Her strong brown arms then turned the ornate iron handle and a gush of water spilled out over the brick paved floor and rushed to the gully under the sink by the window.

She wiped her hands and arms on a small towel and took me back across the garden path to the kitchen in the house. I gave her the gift and she opened it and looked pleased. Her hair was still done up in a scarf, tied in the front with a knot and her old dress with a faded pattern was clearly her washday wear. As we sat there she took my hand in hers. Her hand was red and rough with years of hard work, the nails cut short like a mans and she spoke about her birthday.
"I'm forty today, did you know that? I don't know where the years have gone."
I said nothing, but went on eating my biscuit.

"If only we could live our lives all over again." As she looked in my eyes she squeezed my hand again. She went on, pleading with me. "Always be kind and loving."

I smiled back at her not knowing in my childish mind what deeper meaning lie behind those words.

Now so many years after, when the dreaded forty would in fact, to me, seem like a gift, I know that it was not age but despair and lost opportunity that weighed her down. When I became an adult, my own mother told me about her sister's life. She had been the eldest child and a daughter at that. As soon as she could work at fourteen she was put into service in a large house and learned how to work hard there. When she was twenty she was encouraged to marry a worker on the estate, to eliminate any future responsibility for her by her parents. Because she had little or no contact with her parents or peers since she was fourteen, she was completely ignorant of life. So she did the right thing, and got married.

The day after the wedding, she returned home pleading with her mother, not to send her back. Her mother had merely said, "You are married now, get on back to your husband." Her shame and humiliation cannot be imagined as she had to walk six miles back to the home that she had to make with a new husband.

Twenty years later, she sat with a small boy on her fortieth birthday, remembered her life, but did not shed a tear.


  1. So sad and reflective. Aunt Vi seems to have gone on to adjust to her life but 40 is indeed an age when we can look back and know that somehow we missed our possibilities and also look forward and recognise the bleakness that still beckons.

  2. I really like that you leave it to the readers imagination as to wonder why Auntie Vi should give out such advice. Not what you do write, but what you don't write. There are also your wonderful descriptions that enable time travel back to these places.

  3. One or two what if's, but no real regrets. She sounds like a typically strong Northern English girl. Small world...

  4. I love these character descriptions! Makes you want an Aunty-Vi..What is blueing the sheets? I have never heard that expression before..Jae

  5. you bought tears to my heart! I am really touched

    Life's Events

  6. As I remember blueing the sheets was to rinse them in "Reckitt's Blue" a powder that gave the sheets a whiter look than they would normally have after much use.

    Now why would a small boy remember that?

  7. What I find particularly fascinating is that 40 isn't considered old any more. We've come a long way in seeing life as something we can take in a new direction anytime.

    I like your description of the washing. My paternal grandmother was still cooking on a wood-burning stove and using a wringer washer (which is what I think you mean by mangle, right?) in 1950. It was sometime later in that decade when an indoor bath and toilet made their appearance in my grandparents' house. Seems crazy that it was all so recent as to be within living memory!

  8. This is so sad--I really got pulled into this one. It's amazing how smells bring back so many memories. I love your vivid descriptions and wish this was part of a novel so I could read more.

  9. Thanks for the explanation of 'Reckitt's Blue' Old Egg! Who could forget such a name! Jae

  10. Wow, such a sad and lovely story -- really tugged at my heart. I'm 40 and while 40 isn't considered old anymore, I think for many it's still considered a time to take stock of where a person has been and where they're going, and yes, it's very important to try to make peace as best we can with any past regrets and not to be haunted too much by what we cannot change. And instead focus on what we can change.

  11. It seems like she made it as happy as she could. I do feel for her.

  12. Women had so few opportunities back then and knew so very little when they started out. My great grandmother was English and I have a copy of her marriage certificate. It lists his occupation as carter (which I was told meant he took care of horses) and hers was spinster. She was 20 at that time. We complain about our lives now but we really do not have a clue do we. I would have loved Auntie Vi. Thank you so much for this memory/story.