Summer with my Grandmother (pt I)

A.L. Kennedy

Twice-Best Young British novelist A.L. Kennedy remembers days spent in her grandmother’s cabinet-making workshop, in the first part of a longer piece. Read part two here.

A.L. Kennedy with her grandparents

It’s four in the morning. Later, when I’m an adult, I will meet four in the morning quite often but, for now, it’s new. Horrible and new. It hurts – all over.

My grandparents have, of course, already been awake for at least an hour. They are washed and dressed, my grandmother is eating tea and toasted rounds of milk loaf – a type of bread I only ever see when I am in their house – and my grandfather, having woken me – time to get up – how can it possibly be time to get up? I’ve only just lain down and surely this kind of thing can actually be fatal? – my grandfather is in the kitchen, soft-footed in his slippers, and gathering more tea and more kept-warm-and-already-buttered-and-therefore-soft-and-salt-and-uniquely-my-grandfather’s-kind-of-toast for me. My body accepts both as additional affronts to its systems.

The pair of them look at me while I eat, grinning, and in general not very secretly pleased I have finally joined them in their world of stealing a march on everyone, of afternoon naps and early to bed and then up and ready and off to work before the day can catch them. I try to appear nonchalant and I am, sort of, in a way, enjoying this – I love the smell of my grandfather’s work jacket and his overalls – dark, sharp scents of metals and grease and Swarfega – they are part of the huge, dependable, secretive, funny, gentlemanly, tender and strangely graceful thing which is my grandfather. But today – and every other weekday for the whole of the holidays – I will be working with my grandmother, I will be getting to know my grandmother – my prickly, changeable, wiry grandmother – an occasionally foul-tempered and violent pacifist, an old-style red-flag socialist married to a one-nation Tory, a woman with the loudest laugh in any theatre, a woman who hated crudity but loved a naughty joke and who refused to receive communion for years because she believed she was too full of sin to deserve it. Eventually the vicar had to go round and explain … My grandmother was a whole crowd of tricky people to spend time with.

She gave me a peppermint on the bus – no journey of any kind being survivable without sandwiches, or at least a boiled sweet and I was, meanwhile, amazed that there even was a bus and that it was almost full of other people in overalls and anoraks and safety boots and caps, people prepared and equipped to do things – only child of a teacher and a university professor, of two people who had educated themselves away from all of this, I didn’t know about going to work in the dark. I was thirteen, my parents were newly divorced, and I now lived in a different place, a small flat in my hometown on the north-east coast of Scotland. Things were altered but also the same – from the top of our street, I could still see the river with fields beyond – but this, this was Staffordshire, the Black Country – and not just for flying visits at Easter with relatives coming round – this was weeks and weeks of staying with my grandparents, of starting to meet where they lived, where they came from – this was steel mills and forges and car building and fish and chips and potato scollops on a Friday and keeping money in tins under the bed and fabricating and turning and extrusion-moulding and clay pits and subsiding, long-forgotten mines and riveting and welding and canals, this was a heritage of manufacturing that had turned a whole county the colour of coal dust, of soot, of the dirt of making things that Britain needed, that its empire had needed – guns and locks and manacles for the slave trade. Even its air tasted metallic, questionable. It could seem a dark place of injuries and cripplings, of harms. And people still told the story of Queen Victoria passing through in her royal train and just closing her blinds on the Black Country, ignoring it until it went away. They still bore a grudge on behalf of a hard and proud, ingenious and partly crazy place – where chimneys were chimbleys and your throat was your thrapple and if you were a fool you weren’t, you were a wazzick. And heaven help you if my grandmother thought you were a wazzick – because the very least she’d do would be to tell you.

It was all, of course, doomed – although I didn’t know about that either. Staffordshire’s industries were ailing even then and it was getting scared, small-minded, fretting over immigration, while the next generations – wherever they came from – lost their accents, spoke all-purpose homogenised Brummy. The words that my grandmother used become peculiar, before being turned out to silence.

But that first morning the quiet, tired-looking people doggedly boarded and left our bus and the rain fell and we drove away from streets and houses, through into haphazard, modern industrial estates and then further, back into somewhere impossible, somewhere in the past. When we climbed down and started to walk there was Staffordshire Blue brick shining all around us, a vaguely iridescent purple on the walls and even underfoot, worn into smooth hollows, and my grandmother led the way through a complex of Victorian alleys and courtyards and small-windowed structures and past hand-painted signs that might have referred to businesses long gone and finally we halted at the nondescript door of a shabby, low building to which she had the key.

She let us in – proprietorial and swift – anxiously disabled the alarm – it always did make her anxious – and then she turned on the lights and there it was – the cabinet maker’s workshop – at our disposal. Stacked wood and racked wood and ageing wood and new wood and old wood, wood organised and categorized in ways I couldn’t comprehend and wounded furniture held in clamps and half-finished new items of various designs and monumental, crouching machines, their bits and blades sleeping, but all of them clearly quite capable of lopping or slicing or gouging or massively sawing a person in two – the detail of their edges, in fact, more plainly worrying when at rest – and above all else there was naturally, overpoweringly, wonderfully, the smell of wood – the dusty-sweet, comforting and homely smell of wood – a solid atmosphere of so much wood, of so many types, that each step inside it would be slightly different – would bring the cheap whip and spring of young pine, or the dry and intelligent complications of restored mahogany, the sharp density of beech, the melancholy heat in oak, and the further tastes and traces of grains and curves and knots and flaws, of flexibilities and qualities and names I didn’t know – it was magnificent. And my grandmother understood it – she was both its mistress and its master. Inside the workshop she became stiller, taller, more assured, a woman it was impossible not to admire.

Not that she was literally still – not at all – she arrived so ludicrously early, because before she could start working, there was work to do – because what is a cabinet maker’s full of? besides wood and the scents of wood? – mess. And what could my grandmother not abide? Mess. And indeed – messing. And, now that you mention it, not that you ever should, people who messed. And on every surface of the workshop, even on the walls and in the air, there was mess – the mess of fine sawdust and medium sawdust and heavy sawdust and wood shavings large and small and straight and curly and wood chips and wood off-cuts and wood splinters and none of it could be borne and so in we set, the two of us, with brooms and shovels and cloths and we cleaned the workshop and I knew, without being told, that I was an incompetent sweeper, that I raised too much dust while trying to remove it, that swoops of exhaustion were making me clumsy, that I was too nervous and tentative when I tried to clean the dozing machines and that I was – by the end of it all – too much of a mess myself. Whatever I did, I ended up wearing it. An artisan, a professional, like my grandmother, knows how to be in dirty places without losing her dignity, knows how to be a credit to her craft.

Part two is also now online.

Images courtesy of A.L. Kennedy

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Summer with my Grandmother (pt II)
Going Back