‘A Penny for Friendship’
a memoir in the form of a short story
Wherever towns and cities meet the people find themselves with conflicting allegiances. I was brought up in Smethwick and have it stamped indelibly upon me. It was then a town in its own right, though no stranger would have been able to tell where the mighty city of Birmingham ended and the solid, industrial town of Smethwick, Staffordshire, began. But the world the town belonged to has gone, leaving part of me out of my time, searching in vain for a world that it is like it in some way.
I can remember my mother, asked by a neighbour what I planned to do when I left the grammar school, replying, ‘Oh, he’s got grand ideas,’ as if she had an inkling that those ideas would inevitably take me away from the street where we lived, or at least away from her. But she and my father, and the street where we lived, lie so close to the surface of my consciousness that anyone reading my thoughts would believe I am obsessed.
We carry our obsessions with us. They shape our lives and wear away at our time.
My maternal grandfather, ‘Bert’ Swingle, died of cancer. At what I later realised was a final ritual visit, I sat opposite him and was told how ‘education’ was the most important thing anyone could have. As only one of his five children had received more than an elementary education, it seemed to me that he must know what he was talking about.
Getting to the grammar school and passing the important examinations at the age of sixteen became the goal for my cousins and me. But most of us have been spoilt, perhaps, by succeeding in jumping the hurdles. Even though I escaped from school at sixteen, I have been drawn back, like an unreformed prisoner who seeks the security of a place he hates but nevertheless relies on.
My paternal grandfather, ‘Gord’, was a blacksmith who spent most of his later years at the British Federal in Dudley. My father was a shunter with the Birmingham Railway, Carriage and Wagon, who employed most of our neighbours and whose wall towered above us as my mother and I climbed the hill that would take us to my grandparents’ houses.
If ‘education’ was urged upon me by Grandfather Swingle, it was largely ignored by my Grandfather Webster, who, my father assured me, was a clever man who knew about horses and could have done better for himself. My father and grandfather had similar characteristics, and I recognize the same traits in myself with a mixture of pride and irritation.
My Grandfather Webster had two brothers, Len and Olf. I can barely remember Uncle Len, from whom my father took his middle name, the name by which he was known and the name by which, in due course, I would be known. But I do remember Uncle Olf, whose wife, Aunt Win, kept the shop on the corner of Oxford and Cambridge Roads.
Someone with a sense of humour must have named those roads. Oxford Road, Cambridge Road, Whitehall Road, Lewisham Road, Mornington Road, tiny Downing Street with a grey wall of mystery on one side and a few shops and terraced houses on the other. Only Wattville Road (‘Wattvilla Street,’ as my Grandmother Webster called it) had been named with any imagination, and that indicative of some unexplained social pretence.
It was neither Oxford nor Cambridge that had received Uncle Olf and Aunt Win’s only son before the Second World War. That distinction had gone to the University of Birmingham, where he had obtained a creditable Second Class Honours Degree in Engineering, thereby facilitating his escape to Rolls-Royce Engines in Derby. But Rolls-Royce was so much like the Birmingham Carriage Works, and Derby not so different from Smethwick, that ‘escape’ is probably too strong a word to use. At any rate, he left for Derby, met Betty, and stayed with the company for the rest of his working life, not knowing that he had become a legendary figure for those of us born shortly after the War.
‘Uncle’ Clifford – I always called him ‘Uncle’ – was usually seen in Smethwick at Christmas time, with Betty, whose wonderful accent and sparkling smile I found totally enchanting, and the parlour behind Aunt Winnie’s shop was filled with vitality.
The educated family hero never gave himself airs. Quietly spoken, he was never aloof, and I think he genuinely enjoyed these visits back to the streets of his childhood. When my Grandfather Webster was ill in hospital, he wanted Clifford to speak to the Doctor, assuming, no doubt, that the medical man would have a higher regard for a fellow graduate.
Whether my father felt hurt by this, I do not know, but my Grandfather Webster died very shortly afterwards, and everyone said how I had been lucky to have known all four grandparents. I remember the Eagle comic that I would go to his house to read every week, and the jar of ‘suck’ that I had been told he started keeping when he tried to give up smoking, and always there was the putrid smell of the herden bags that I never could spell but which were used for towels and hung limply behind the kitchen door at my Grandmother Webster’s house, 200 Halfords Lane.
By now I, too, was up at the grammar school, where each assembly reminded me of Uncle Clifford, whose name was printed in gold on the honours board. One day, ‘Pop’ Haley, the deputy headmaster who had been at the school for years and was convinced that we were not ‘literary’, looked at me vaguely and said, ‘You aren’t...related to...’ And I waited for him to ask me if Clifford was my father, but he stopped himself in time, so that I could cheerfully say that he was my ‘Uncle’, which in a way was true since that is what I had been taught to call him.
One of my Grandfather Webster’s last wishes was that ‘the home wouldn’t be broken up’, and one of my Grandmother Webster’s first actions after his death was to break it up and move into a one-bedroomed flat, where she seemed happy for a while before embarking on the purchase of a ‘little cottage’ near to the stench from the chemical works in Langley. But the move from 200 Halfords Lane ended an epoch in my childhood, bringing to an end the smell of herden bags and the mysteries of the entries leading in and out of the rows of houses that everyone knew as ‘The Barracks’.
I was in the second year at grammar school when Uncle Clifford visited our tiny house in Mornington Road and asked me some words in French. I was in Class 3A and he said, ‘Very good. I was never in the top class.’
‘It’s not the top class,’ I had to admit, having resented being in the top class and worked hard at being kicked out of it.
Eventually, Uncle Olf and Aunt Winnie, the lease on their shop not having been renewed, made the enormous decision to move up to Derby and be near Clifford and his growing family. For a time, the shop was empty, then some Asians took it over and some people said how bad it was that Winnie Webster had sold out to foreigners. ‘They don’t understand that it was on a lease,’ said my mother, by way of explanation.
My father, his motorcycle linked up to a sidecar, took us to Derby. Uncle Clifford, aware of the needs of that growing family, was building an extension to his house. We all admired it, and thought how clever it was to be able to build an extension to a house. Uncle Olf and Aunt Winnie lived in their own place not far away, so that it was easy for them to visit and be visited.
‘But we don’t see much of them, you know,’ laughed Betty. ‘It’s as if they’re afraid they’ll wear out their welcome!’ And I thought how that would be impossible with Betty.
My father’s only sister, Lil, kept in touch with the people up at Derby, and we exchanged Christmas cards. When my grandmother died and the funeral was kept up at our house, the one we moved to when the Mornington Road terraces were knocked down, Uncle Clifford came from Derby. Things had changed a lot in the area, he remarked, and I tried to picture his view of the place that had been.
His father was old and ailing. ‘The heat as you go in that house knocks you back.’ But there was still a kind of independence.
When Uncle Olf died, Dad knew that he should have gone to the funeral, but it was at a time when we had no transport.
And when my father died, Clifford again came to the house that had replaced the one from my childhood. My mother and I saw him at the crematorium waiting for the cortege, which snaked its way through a post-Christmas coldness towards the place where so many from my mother’s side of the family had already gone.
They would tell Aunt Win about my father’s death, Clifford said when he came back to the house afterwards, but not just yet because she could not take it in her present condition.
‘Well, there’s probably no need to tell her,’ I said.
‘No, but we will, when the time is right.’
The time must have come right after that, for my mother received a tearful phone call from Aunt Win, then well over eighty. But I had left again, to travel wide in search of links that might connect me with a past that has gone.
Years later, I returned to our house with a wife who knew little of our history and who failed to grasp the intensity with which some emotions are felt. It was a strained year spent at the University of Birmingham. From the glass and concrete Muirhead Tower, I could see over the city, watching its green summer dress change to autumn golds and browns, fade to the bleakness of winter, and then bud again. But the bleakness had returned by December when my mother and I attended Graduation Day. It rained a little, for a brief moment the sun fought to come out, and we went to the top of the Muirhead to look across the mist-shrouded city. In the opposite direction, the Water Tower on top of the hill at Warley.
My mother said, incongruously, that my father would have been proud to be in the Great Hall at the ceremony because Birmingham was the university that his cousin Clifford, the first person in the family to obtain a degree, had attended.
Afterwards, we drove together around the streets which had once been alive but which were now derelict or obliterated, the two of us hidden behind memories that both linked and divided our worlds. We make our own dreams but are haunted by the past, and the shaping of our destinies is largely beyond our individual scope until, approaching the end of our time, the dreams and the shaping are but a refashioning or idealizing of the past.
Once when Betty and Clifford came to our old terrace house in Mornington Road, Smethwick, my mother gave her some glass. I forget now what it was, perhaps some kind of decorative glass bowl – I really can’t remember. Then my mother, who could be superstitious, realized what she was doing.
‘It’s bad luck to give glass,’ she said. ‘It can shatter a friendship.’
Betty had thought of that, too, so she took out a penny and, laughing, handed it over as payment.
‘It’s worth a penny for friendship,’ everyone agreed, and another fragment was placed in the crystal jigsaw of a now that has passed. But I fear it breaking, for with it will break the final fragments of crystal that have survived those who have gone already.
Approximately 2,000 words