Sarah is 80 this year. She idolised my mum who, admittedly, was good with small children not her own. In any case, this was in the years when my mum was a Sunday School teacher and must have had child-amusing tricks up her sleeve.
Sarah is one of my long-lost cousins - found, as long-lost relatives so often are, through Ancestry.com. Hers is one of the mysterious faces which kept popping up anonymously in the ancient family albums. Sarah’s grandmother, Lily, was the sister of my grandmother, Daisy. When Lily’s daughter and grandchildren – Sarah and Derek - were evacuated from Tooting during the war, they crammed into a small end-terrace in Cheltenham Spa with my grandmother and mum. Sarah was then a very small child, and my mum a young teen.
Talking to Sarah is a revelation. Just like my mum, her mother and grandmother used to bang on endlessly about “The Mumbles” as if it were Manderley.
Mumbles (Welsh: Mwmbwls) is a headland on Swansea Bay with a couple of big rocky promontories just off it. Apparently a French sailor decided they looked like women’s breasts and so called them “Les Mamelles” - which in English mouths became “Mumbles”. There is, for me, a poignancy in the fact that both Sarah and I grew up with our mothers pining for a return to those Welsh breasts; to the place where their mothers and grandmothers had tucked their dresses in their knickers, been happy, had fun.
The Welsh connection is significant. Lily and Daisy came from a family of itinerant railway contractors, who moved around hoping for casual work as the railway was built. They lived in ramshackle wooden huts alongside the rail tracks. I don’t yet know how long they lived in Wales or how often they went to the Mumbles.
At some point, Daisy took to religion, and she may have been the only one of thirteen children to do so; I have yet to find out. Given the religious fervour in the chapels of Wales at that time, was Daisy perhaps recruited into a Sunday School, or taken off to services by a zealot? Lily, I have discovered, was free of religious fanaticism, and I have seen the pub she drank in just off Tooting Broadway. My father’s family were entirely teetotal and so was my mum. Strong liquor had never passed Daisy’s lips, although I have a sliver of memory that she had had a sip of sherry once in a blue moon.
Daisy contrived to “marry up” – we don’t yet know how. I wonder if religious fervour played a part: did she meet her husband Jack in a chapel? She was undoubtedly a striking beauty, and a catch in that respect; but Jack was handsome enough. Somehow Daisy went from the railway tracks in South Wales to the regency splendour of Cheltenham Spa, and how she revelled in it.
My mother, to general dismay, “married down”, although on the face of it my father was a Master Butcher with a van, a shop and an acre of land behind it. She walked into a trap, although I’d bet my mortgage that my mum ensnared my father in the first instance. Long in the tooth and on the shelf, they were both sent on a Christian Endeavour holiday by their respective families, my mother with a chaperone who probably engineered the match.
Once married, they were both stuck; in a cramped and dirty cottage, within easy grasping distance of both of their mothers.
In stark contrast, Sarah moved to Sutton, to the decent, clean house she still lives in, and wrote letters to my mum about her happy, normal life. My poor mum, aghast at her own fate, must have wondered – often – how it all went so wrong.