the backward glance

Walking up the road this morning for the paper, I saw the window of a house misted with  condensation and remembered ….

I was very young when my mother had one wall of the small bedroom on the front of the semi papered in a soft grey green figured with stylised fawns.

There was a dressing table from whose five sided surface hung a curtain.  Storage.   My books were in the smallest bookcase ever.  There was a lamp.

There was also a window looking out into the street and on this in the winter I woke to ice flowers, frozen patterns on the windows.  Everybody I knew was in the same boat – air con was foreign – and  I truly don’t remember being cold.   I had warm things to sleep in, layers on the bed, a hot water bottle.  And the patterns were beautiful.   I’d show them to one or other of my parents and we’d look for pictures in them.  

There was what then was known as a gas circulator in the kitchen, on low all time, popping up into a minor explosion when you used hot water.   The house wasn’t large, there were three of us in it, with open fires in what was laughingly called the dining room and the sitting room .   That’s where we sat when we weren’t in the kitchen, or in bed. 

From that bedroom window too, I used to watch as the lamplighter came

on his bicycle with a long pole over his shoulder, at the top of which was a glass shield he could retract, to put the flame to the wick in the lamp outside the house.  It was wonderful, like a fairy tale.  I loved watching the street opposite, people about their lives, my dog coming home.   When I told Pam the Painter, she scoffed “ Oh go on with you, you’re not that old.”   And I paused.   Memory is sometimes very selective.  You remember this, but not that – and it is true that the lamplighter was only in the youngest two or three years of my noticing. 

After that we had a fog piercing automatic light like everybody else.  And I was moved into my sister’s bigger bedroom  (she was in Prestwick, learning how to be a meteorologist) in which to do my homework and store my already “we know what to give you” library. Looking back is very seductive.   Warmer, sweeter, brighter

– we know it was cheaper.   Didn’t we all look better ?  But I’m sure not everything was better.  It was different.

You can get stuck in what was.  It’s not helpful.   You can rewrite history, but you can’t go back and live in your re-invention.   Currently bending my ear is a woman telling me repetitively the story of her miserable marriage, less how it affected her than the “children” who are both now in their fifties.  There was a complicated family history with issues of power and convention, but there is a kind of time limit on reinventing horrors.   It becomes a cop out.  And she left this marriage – with difficulty but she did leave – and after ten happy years with the love of her life, who sadly died – she returned to the marriage.  I can remember her telling me that she was going to do it and why.  Money.

I confess, I can get very sniffy about the matter of money.  In age, I have come to appreciate that I came from not very much.  Professionally I earned well though I had holes in my pockets,

and a late breakthrough to sense came too late for what is derisorily called wealth management – because of course you can only increase what you’ve got. And you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone (thank you Joanie Mitchell).

Heaven knows what we can look forward to, less of it, worth less, but it’s done.  And I will feel the cold more this year than in that happy memory.  Children of the milkman leaving pint glass bottles with foil lids, we used to talk about money as “milk tops and buttons.” It’s too easy to be soured by the backward glance.  Face forward. 

2 responses to “the backward glance

  1. I remember the lightlighter too and the soft ‘pock’ as the gas lit. And the oil lamps and coal fires and candles in saucers before electricity came in for us poor people.

  2. A beautiful piece of writing. You could be talking about my Nan’s house when we stayed at the weekend, no lamplighter though!
    Times do look difficult going forward but what can we do? It’s the only direction of travel for us.
    And money? Ah yes,I’ve been the same as you,spent it when I had it,but those times were few and far between.
    Decent job now,pension etc. Like to retire but playing catch up with my pension. Never mind,look forward.
    Once again great piece. Take care

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