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The Gramophone Emporium

The Gramophone Emporium was a place out of time. Its window (broken) crammed with gramophone parts. It had no website, no phone line, and, despite being in a trendy boho part of town, no passing custom.

But it did have customers: collectors of vintage wax and vinyl who knew of the shop’s existence by word of mouth. Although some jealously guarded the secret of where they got their records, collectors came from as far away as Germany and even the US.

They were virtually all male, some young but mostly older and much older. Their interests ranged from 1902 Caruso recordings (single sided discs) through Fats Waller in 1924 (the sound as live and immediate as if you were leaning on Fats’ piano) to esoteric Gaelic songs that could have been recorded in a croft somewhere in the Highlands.

The shop began its life in St Stephen Street, Edinburgh in the mid-70s. Part of the street was threatened with demolition and rents plummeted. Because the area was central, people took advantage of these low rents and low-budget businesses moved in along with a whole community of ‘hippies’. Many of the small businesses remained – I have photos of an antique shop and a shop selling only gas mantles and oil lamp parts, both further along the street from the gramophone shop.

It gained sufficient fame in the 1980s to have a whole radio feature devoted to it on Radio Scotland, the radio crew and presenter filling the shop.

After squeezing through the front door, with its tinkling brass bell, there was a front room which doubled as an assault course for the unwary. The machines on which to play the treasures of the 78 disc were everywhere: reconditioned wind-ups, stately table tops and furniture-sized models. The walls were lined with shelf upon shelf of discs, loosely (very loosely) categorised. At floor and ceiling level were collections of 33rpm vinyl, looking almost uncomfortable in such riches of an earlier recording age. Boxes full of records that had ‘just come in’ lay randomly about and, as customers plundered them, stray discs spilled out and some were crushed underfoot in the limited floor space.

There was Victorian sheet music and piles of vintage music magazines. If you have a portable wind-up gramophone (imagine a 1920s picnic with strawberries and cream by the river), there’s a cavity into which you can stuff some material to muffle the sound, the origin of the expression ‘put a sock in it’! So N. would sell you packs of gramophone needles in soft, medium or loud tone. Each needle was used only once and of course, each record requiring cranking the gramophone handle about twenty turns.

A disc-lined alley led to the ‘back room’ which doubled as an unofficial club. This was presided over by A. and B., who held court among their ordered shelves of classical 78s. You’d like an example of a Russian bass from 1920? No problem, B knew just the one. And while it’s playing, how about a cup of tea (laced with a wee dram if you’d like!) and a biscuit? A. and B. had known each other for years (neither were in their green and salad years) and there was a steady flow of banter. When I asked those gents about their backgrounds, I was told that B. was a retired art teacher and an expert on the recordings of the Irish tenor, John McCormack. A. described himself, with a customary twinkle in his eye, as ‘a man of the world’.

In the corner of this inner sanctum, there was often a customer hunkered down with a heavy pile of records on his knee: sifting and searching for that one dreamed-of treasure. A lot of the stock cost between £1 and £3, so it was an affordable hobby. There were rarer discs, but it was mostly dealers who handled those sales. The internet has invigorated the market recently, and four figure sums for one disc are now not uncommon.

The shop stock was sourced mainly from house clearances and people who came in with their deceased relatives’ boxes of records. N. (the manager) remembered one case where they participated in the clearing of a house belonging to a Scots-Italian violinist who had grown increasingly reclusive in his final years. When he died, the rooms of the house were knee deep in his collections and among his treasures were about 5,000 78rpm records. His taste was eclectic, and there was everything from opera to jazz in the collection.

How did I find this place? Well, I lived just along the street and one day the door was open. They only opened one and a half days a week, so I was lucky. I seemed to become a kind of mascot – lady collectors are rare birds indeed. N. (who, in his other life, taught the Gaelic and also the Scots moothie (mouth-organ), would put aside discs he thought I might like – he got the idea that 1920s Cuban tangos, American dancebands, jazz pianists and Italian tenors were my kind of thing.

I learned so much. Did you know, for example, that the famous His Masters Voice label (with dog) issued all their records during WWI and WWII with a white label out of respect for the war? Or that the plainer the label on an early Russian 78, the closer to the Holy Grail of 78s it is? Or that not all 78s were created equal – some were recorded at 80rpm, others at 76rpm – and for that reason, wind-up gramophones have an adjustable slide.

In short, it was the kind of place which I didn’t think existed any more. But there it was, thriving, in the heart of a busy city. A quiet delight. So twice a week back then, you’d find me propping up a wall in the Gramophone Emporium.

POSTSCRIPT: Nowadays the revamped Gramophone Emporium, orderly and clean, is sited directly across the street from the old shop, which was bought by one of the Emporium’s customers. Now it’s a popular record shop, smart and trendy, selling the best of vinyl. But if you want 78rpm records or a beautifully restored wind-up gramophone, the Gramophone Emporium is still the last shop in the UK to exclusively sell them. It’s well worth a visit. Tell Billy I sent you.
The Gramophone Emporium, 12 St. Stephen Street, Stockbridge, Edinburgh, EH3 5AN
0131 225 1203
billybeltona@gmail.com

All Photographs © Rachel Cowan

Music

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Hands & Feet

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I had a young friend who was a talented artist with a gallery in St Stephen Street. She liked to dress flamboyantly and had the striking good looks to carry it off with ease. The day this picture was taken, she was dressed down in casual top and jeans. But, being her, the look didn’t stop there. She twirled in front of me, pointed downwards and clicked her heels. There were sequinned, pillarbox red shoes complete with bows. Dorothy shoes with a twist! How could I resist? Afterwards, I bleached out most of the colour except the bottom of the denims and those red shoes. She’s since become the mother of a wee boy, but she’s still a working artist whose verve and zest for life is infectious and heartwarming.


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There’s an annual festival which takes place in Inverleith Park called Treefest. It celebrates all aspects of wood, so there are demonstrations of woodturning and logging as well as marquees full of the most beautiful things ever to emerge from wood or paper. It was a hot summer’s day when this was taken and the woodturner was busy at his lathe. The fact that the rest of him was in deep shade drew me to those hands and arms – cords of sinews and muscle and brown, knobbly hands.

All Photographs © Rachel Cowan

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Swedish Design in the ’30s

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In 1932, Erik Ljungberg established a record label, AB Sonora, produced entirely in Sweden. Sonoras were sold originally at 2 krone but the price was reduced to 1.65 krone during 1933. Ljungberg sold the label to Philips in 1958. The company also produced a portable gramophone.

Although all that’s interesting, what really grabs my attention about this record sleeve is the fabulous design. There are two fonts in classic black and red. I particularly love the uppercase E & S and lower case f & r of the script font. The contrasting blocky font has just a few subtle serifs and is mainly used in uppercase. One text block reads “Giv arbete åt svenska arbetare” which translates as “Give work to Swedish workers”.

And just look at that great little logo at the foot of the sleeve. Feet like musical notes and a disc-shaped body – but what’s with the little flag apparently flying from the bridge of his nose? Who cares when it’s designed with such flair?

[More information on Sonora can be found here.]
Arts

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The Quack – Molly Mallard Speaks

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“Is it OK to take your picture?”

“Why yes dear, that’s fine.”

“Your mate seems a little disturbed by my interviewing you – he’s got his head stuck under his feathers.”

“Oh don’t mind him. I said to him not half an hour ago, I said ‘Maurice, it’s very nice being up high on this wall, but we’re only going to draw attention to ourselves.’ I mean, it’s not exactly natural is it? Ducks on walls?”

“Actually, retro plaster ducks are very – no, never mind – you’re right, it’s not very – usual.”

“I said ‘On the river, Maurice – that’s where we belong – high living isn’t for the likes of us’ but he’s got it into his head that he has to make a – what does he call it – a statement – I ask you. Anyway, here we are on this blessed wall and I don’t mind telling you, I’m starting to get a little dizzy.”

“You do look great up there though. Not many ducks have your natural composure.”

“Thank you dear. [Ruffles feathers proudly] Well, if we’re here for everyone to see, the least we can do is smile is what I say.”

“I do appreciate it.”

“Not at all dear – now would you like my other side? Maurice always says it’s my best.”

“I think I’ve got all I need now, thanks.”

Photo © Rachel Cowan

Photos, Stories

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The bucketmen and the cafe

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I was taking a cut-through from St Stephen Street and blocking my view (it was stopped at traffic lights) was this rubbish lorry. We used to call them the bucketmen and I’m not sure when buckets became bins. Perhaps around the same time that the word lorry was replaced with the Americanised truck?

It’s not what one would call a beautiful view, but just look at the design that’s gone into it. The colour scheme on the buttons, the shapes and spacing – so much detail on what is, after all, a completely utilitarian vehicle. I got just one shot before the lights changed and the truck moved off.

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It was one of those blustery, chilly days and I was at the front at Silverknowes. I went into the little cafe which is one of the most uninspiring places I know to have a cup of coffee. Approaching the counter, I heard two voices yelling, a man and a woman. The argument was conducted in Russian and the man was definitely getting the worst of it. My genteel cough to draw attention to myself went unheard, and eventually I joined in the yelling HELLO CAN I HAVE A COFFEE PLEASE?

Hugging my insipid coffee (nuked in the microwave) I gazed out at the bleak beach, the tide a mere dribble. The mobile ice cream ad seemed completely incongruous – a gloriously grim landscape. Once I’d thawed out, I took some pictures. As I was doing this, the woman from the cafe came past me and sniffed contemptuously.

All Photographs © Rachel Cowan

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After The Show

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Street theatre’s a hard gig, take it from me. The excited screams of children, photographers snapping away from every angle and traffic noise that can overwhelm the sound system. And the weather’s always a worry – will the gear stand up to a sudden gust of wind or downpour of rain?

Thank goodness the audience doesn’t realise all this. Of course, when you’re on, all of that vanishes. The body’s aches and pains, the worries of everyday life simply cease to exist. But now — after — the energy that you needed for the show slowly uncoils.

That aching shoulder makes presence known again and your costume feels itchy and heavy. Your make up runs streaky with sweat. And tired. God, you hadn’t realised how tired you were. That first ciggie feels blissful, even though you know it’s bad for you. You can finally let your face sink into repose. You don’t want to talk to anyone yet, just grab a moment for yourself to recover from all that intensity. Relief and resignation are washing over you. It’s done, over, nothing you can do about it now. Tomorrow’s another show, another day, another place. The doubts will come later: was it ok, was I ok? How was the audience, will we be asked back next year?

Your stomach starts to rumble. The set-up tonight took longer than expected, so you missed dinner. Now you’re longing for fast, greasy food. You could murder a long, cool beer too.

Then a couple of hours spent laughing and joking with your fellow performers, congratulating each other on your collective brilliance. Trying your best as always to ignore the producer who’s hell-bent on giving you notes on what “wasn’t quite as good as usual” in today’s show.

But for now, it’s just the moment. The moment that is after.

Photo © Rachel Cowan

Stories

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The Portugese Art of Fado

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The Portugese music known as fado is intense, heartfelt and inextricably linked to a deep sense of loss as depicted here in a romantic painting by José Malhoa. It has echoes of African slave rhythms and a distinct Arabic influence.

The most popular form of fado emerged in Lisbon’s working-class districts such as Alfama. Maria Severa Onofriana (1820-1846), widely acknowledged as the greatest fadista of the 19th century, is said to have been a tall and gracious prostitute who would sing the fado and play the Portuguese guitar in taverns. To this day, female performers wear a black shawl in memory of her. Her almost mythical status was largely due to a novel by Júlio Dantas entitled A Severa. Later made into a play, it became the first Portugese talking movie, directed by Leitão de Barros.

I first found fado through the singing of Amália Rodrigues, who performed to huge acclaim worldwide. When this legendary singer died in 1999, she was given a state funeral and three days of national mourning were declared in her honour. Her CD ‘The Art of Amalia’ is a great introduction to fado and there’s also a documentary from 2000 directed by Bruno de Almeida. Here’s a modern street art stencil of her photographed by Môsieur J in Lisbon.

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Contemporary fado is very much alive with the singer Mariza dubbed the new Queen of Fado (Amalia Rodrigues having held the original title). Below is a video of her on electrifying form on Jools Holland’s show.


My 78rpm record is of a performer who predates both Mariza and Amália Rodrigues. Edmundo de Bettencourt (1899-1973) was a renowned poet and singer born in Funchal, Madeira. My record is from the first series (of two) that Bettencourt made for the Columbia Graphophone Company in February 1928.

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The recording took place in a former royal palace in Oporto and he was accompanied on the traditional Portugese 12 string guitar by Artur Paredes and Albano de Noronha and on viola by Mário Faria ad Fonseca, who was also the song’s composer. Teamed with ‘Mar Alto’ is Fado de Santa Cruz, composed by Fortunato Roma Da Fonseca.

Label details:
Columbia Graphophone Co. Ltd., London EC1
Brown label with ‘Magic Notes’ logo
Mar Alto (Fádo Cançáo)
Composiçăo de Mario Faria Fonséca
Dr. Edmundo de Bettencourt – Tenõr
Acompanhamento de guitarra e viola
8123

❦ To listen, click the audio player below ❦

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Cars

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Down an alley, through a gate, in the bowels of a tenement block, a car park. Above it a garden shed painted white: clotheslines and bars on windows. But now it’s night. No sheets flapping in the wind. Nobody pottering in the shed with next year’s dahlias. The darkness is navy blue. And it’s quiet. Very quiet.The car, centred in a pool of light at the bottom of the ramp, is ready. Any moment those headlamps could snap on, the engine roar into life. It’s waiting, that’s all, just waiting. For now.


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I was roaming around the Colonies and parked there was this car. Don’t ask me what make it was, I’m a complete duffer on cars. I can only tell you it was of that era (the 1950s perhaps?) that is now known as a classic car. Big and handsome and glossily virile it was. But then I saw the front lights and those sinuous curves – a sexily feminine touch on a very masculine car.

All Photographs © Rachel Cowan

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A Village City

‘A Village City’ was giclee printed at A0 size onto specially treated canvas and it looked pretty good. In fact, almost all the digital art looks a thousand times better when seen big.

‘A Village City’ © Rachel Cowan

Arts

Steam & Dark

I confess – this is one of my favourite photos. My fingers froze to the bone while I tried to get exactly what I wanted from what I saw but it was worth it in the end. I was walking home down the hill on a cold night and ahead of me was the cheese shop. The interior, normally quite glacial, must have been sluiced with hot water not long before I arrived, causing a lot of steam.

The colours were worthy of Caravaggio and the way the lighting interacted with the steam was pure theatre. There’s no blur or smudge applied to this picture – this is as was. Never have strings of saucissons looked so good.


This cafe remained dark and silent for many weeks after closing. One evening, I came by and saw these chairs stacked in the window.

Reflections of other buildings and lights across the street made for an interesting added dimension. It was like a movie stage for a film noir – I half expected a homburg-wearing gumshoe, wreathed in cigarette smoke, to emerge from the gloom.

All Photographs © Rachel Cowan

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Ethel’s Book – When Ethel Saw God

for Ethel's Book

ETHEL

How was she to know if she’d really seen God? She couldn’t ask the vicar because they didn’t let her attend Sunday service any more. Just because she got muddled that once and went to the 11 o’clock with knit-lock knickers over her frock.

They’d be sorry, she told them. She was the only one who knew the words to the hymns and definitely the only one to applaud the sermon. So when God appeared to her in the bookies, she was sceptical. Reg had been the gambler in their family. He’d say that God was on his side when he made a bit of a killing, but she knew he didn’t really believe.

She had started going to the bookies after he died. He was taken sudden, just before his horse crossed the line at Aintree. She liked the overhead telly and the company of Doreen, who took the betting slips and gave her a cuppa sometimes. That day though, nobody was paying her any attention, although she’d worn her pink water wings especially.

But there He was, in a corner. Kind eyes and a full head of hair despite His age. He wasn’t performing miracles or anything like that, He was just stood there. Looking out the window. Nonetheless, she knew Him straightaway. Well, you couldn’t not, could you? She’d have liked to speak to Him really, have a bit of a chat, but the Carmen rollers that Rosemary had given her for Christmas were starting to dig in so it was probably time to head home.

Where was home nowadays? Reg would have known. Come to think of it, where was Reg? He’d only gone out for a pound of sausages and some dripping, he should have been back by now.

She went out the door and waved to God as she passed the window. He looked right at her and smiled. So that was all right.

DOREEN FROM THE BOOKIES

I don’t mind. It’s sad really. Her old man was one of my regulars – evil old sod he was. Nearly always half-cut when he come in – I had to show him the door more than once. A bookies isn’t a ladies tea shop but you’ve got to have some standards, haven’t you?

He hadn’t been dead that long when she started coming. He’d keeled over at Aintree, she said. Before the finish and all. His horse didn’t win anyway – I checked. At least she got to keep the housekeeping that week. I think she came out of curiosity – told me she’d never been inside a bookies in her life. Different times, I said. I suppose she wanted to see where Reg spent his time. Back then of course, she was all there. Sharp as a tack.

I never call her Ethel – she’s always Mrs Jenkins to me. And she calls me Mrs Thompson even though I said call me Doreen but she wasn’t having any. To be honest, she’s a bit of light relief. What with Mr Jack-The-Lad swanning off to meet his bit of stuff most lunchtimes and young Tracy with her head stuck in Hello magazine, it can get a bit lonely in here. I see her coming, usually with the shopping trolley trailing behind, and I put on the kettle. She never refuses a cuppa. Sometimes she brings biscuits with her, though I tell her she needn’t. What are they called – those biscuits – I had them as a kid – shortbread with jam in the middle – Jammie something or other.

She likes watching the big screen. I know she’s got a telly at home, because she told me, but I think it’s one of those little ones and her eyesight isn’t what it was. I help her up onto one of the stools in the corner and make sure she’s settled before I go back to work. If it’s quiet, we have a bit of a chat. I’ve told her about my Claire, how worried we are, and she talks about Eric, her son. He’s a soldier, she says, looks lovely in his uniform. My husband told me that Eric was killed in the ’70s, on one of those training exercises they have on Dartmoor. He says I shouldn’t encourage her, but I don’t see why not. He’s alive in her mind, isn’t he – what’s so wrong with that?

She’s started to dress a bit funny recently. We’re not quite at the knickers on the head stage but I can see it’s not far off. One day she was limping and I asked her what was wrong. She said she hadn’t been able to find the other shoe – and when I looked down, she was wearing one high heeled court and one slipper with a pink cat on it.

The other day, she was all excited. Asked me if I’d seen Him. “Him?” I said. “Who?” “Him” she said. “God”. I was taken aback, I don’t mind telling you. I knew she’d been a church-goer, but she never talked about that side of things. Then she said that He’d been here – in the bookies. I said “How did you know it was God?” She looked at me pityingly and said “You just know, don’t you?” Not a lot you can say to that. She said He smiled at her and that she gave Him a bit of a wave.

I hope it’s not going to be a pattern. This God thing. We had a punter, years ago, who thought he was Jesus Christ. Knew all the dead certs. Said that when his big win came up, he’d share it with us. Seeing as how he never won more than a fiver, I couldn’t see how that would work. Like the loaves and the fishes, he said. He came to a sticky end, that one. The pretend Jesus Christ.

THE REVEREND CLIVE

He rather missed Ethel and her lusty rendition of the old hymns. And was it prideful of him to admit that her spontaneous applause for his humdrum sermons gave him not only great pleasure but the courage to persist with his ministry in this city backwater?

When he arrived here sixteen years ago, she was among the first to welcome him with a chocolate cake of her own making, he remembered. He was a young curate then, too green to know that the consumption of parishioners’ baked goods was to be undertaken with caution. He was ill for three days and three nights. Although hardly on a scale with the tribulations of St John, he emerged from the experience feeling righteously purged.

Ethel had her troubles. That indolent husband of hers who ranged only as far as the pub or the bookies. And a soldier son killed in a tragic accident on Dartmoor. But she remained a lively and buoyant character. The ladies on the Church Flowers rota were however not fond of her and neither was his own dear wife, a rather unforgiving woman. He smiled as he remembered Ethel’s controversial Harvest Thanksgiving – Weeds Are Flowers Too.

When his conscience pricked him, he would pay a pastoral visit to the small terraced house she’d lived in for over fifty years. He made a point of wearing his clerical collar on these occasions since the time when Ethel mistook him for Reg, her deceased husband, and became disconcertingly flirtatious over a plate of Jammie Dodgers. He rather regretted that the collar was now considered unfashionable by most of his congregation.

He hoped that when her time came, as come it must to all souls, they would ask him to conduct the service, even if it took place at the council crematorium rather than in the arched Victorian splendour of St Michael’s. He would instruct the young organist engaged for these occasions to play two of Ethel’s favourites; ‘Fight The Good Fight’ and ‘Nearer, My God, To Thee’.

ERIC – THE SON

Hello Mum. I wish I could pick up the phone and talk to you like I used to – I miss that more than anything. I think you do too. But this’ll have to do. I see you’ve put that photo of me in Christmas Tree order up on the mantelpiece. That was taken in Aldershot, wasn’t it?

Bloody photographer took forever – I was sweating my guts out under those lights. It was like being on parade on a hot summer’s day. No wonder blokes pass out – it’s like a sauna out there in the ranks.

I’ve had a bit of time to think here, Mum. Not that they don’t keep you busy, but there’s still a lot of quiet – y’know. It’s good though. It’s like that quiet that we had, you and me and sometimes Dad, after you’d fed us your best Sunday dinner. A kind of full up quiet, content. You’d try to get me to have a second helping of pudding and I’d say “No Mum, just a cup of tea maybe?” If I’d eaten everything you wanted me to, I’d have been too fat to make it into the Army, wouldn’t I?

Oh sorry. Sore point eh? I know you blamed Dad for me joining up. Well, you were always mad at him for something or other, weren’t you? But the truth is, it was just as much my idea as it was his. I wasn’t going to get any sort of decent job on civvy street with no O-levels. The Army seemed like a good deal. And honestly Mum, I had a good time. I loved all that square-bashing, even though I wouldn’t have admitted it to my mates. Made you feel proud, belonging to something. And they taught me to drive – I wouldn’t have been able to afford lessons otherwise. The driving was a mixed blessing, mind you. If I hadn’t been driving, I wouldn’t have been upside down in that bloody tank, dead as a doornail.

Remember that first Christmas when I’d just finished basic and I came home in uniform for the first time?

Auntie Winnie and Uncle George came round and I got our David drunk on that sherry you kept at the back of the cupboard. That was a laugh, though Dad didn’t think so. He would have thumped me if he’d had the nerve. You got all the neighbours in, gave them some guff about Christmas cards, but truth was you wanted to show me off. “Eric’s learning to drive tanks, aren’t you, love?” I was a bit embarrassed to be honest, but as it was you, Mum…

I know you hoped I’d get together with Susie from Number 88, maybe even get married. We did have a bit of a fling (I kept that quiet, didn’t I?) but it wasn’t anything serious. She married my mate Dave in the end, remember him that came for tea once? Tall skinny bloke, you force fed him your fruitcake. I’m sorry you never got any grandkids though. I would have liked kids really, but it doesn’t matter to me now. I see Rosemary’s kids visiting you sometimes. She’s turned out all right, Rosemary, hasn’t she? Even if she’s a bit of a nag. First you have Dad on at you all the time then there’s Rosemary – poor old Mum!

I like sitting with you some nights, just you and me in the old house. That big tabby cat sat on your lap – he doesn’t like me much, does he? But Mum, you want to watch it. Talking about me to folk like I’m still – well – alive.

WINNIE – THE SISTER

I had set out the blue china for afternoon tea and my dollies were dressed in their best frocks when she ruined it all. She’d been playing with the dog in the garden and they came tearing into the lounge. The table went flying of course – the teapot and the slices of Battenburg with it.

Mother had warned her if there was one more incident with that dog, it would have to go. I for one was glad to see the back of it – smelly, noisy thing.

I was always careful with my belongings, especially my collection of books. Ethel would tell you she’s always loved books, but ask her how many of them she defaced when she was a child and that would be a different story. I opened my Grimms Fairy Tales one day to find things scribbled in the margin by ‘Miss Ethel Fletcher, age 10’. And between the last page and the back cover, there was a rosebud, half-pressed.

She wasn’t any better when she grew up. Her going-away outfit lacked a nice handbag, so I loaned her my best, as any good sister would. It was tan crocodile skin with a gold clasp and it had taken me months to save for. I should have known better. I got it back I don’t know how much later with the clasp broken and a scratch along the side. There was only the sketchiest of apologies from Madam.

Reg Jenkins was a common little man. Mother could scarcely credit that Ethel was intent on marrying him, but marry him she did. And, as the saying goes, repented at leisure.

Oh she pretended they were happy, but everyone knew how far from the truth that was. I was so lucky to have my George. He never caused me a day’s worry in all his life and he gave me two lovely children. But Reg? Died at a racecourse after gambling away everything they had. I only attended the funeral out of consideration for poor Ethel.

It’s been difficult this past year. With Ethel going a bit – funny. There’s never been a history of that in the family, I told them, Mother and Father were both sharp as tacks till the day they died. Rosemary’s been a great help – in her line of work, she comes across things like this all the time, she tells me.

Sometimes though, and I know as a Christian I shouldn’t say this, for Jesus was very keen on helping the unfortunates of this world wasn’t he, but sometimes, I wonder if she isn’t just making it all up, just to get the attention.

ETHEL

Her petticoats rustled and she felt as light as gossamer as they waltzed around the dancefloor. He was stoneyfaced, which was off-putting, but she put it down to his dance shoes being a bit on the snug side.

“Reg, d’you want to sit the next one out?” she asked. “Yes all right. Why don’t I get us some drinks from the bar?” he said. Half an hour later, he hadn’t returned. He’d probably found a new friend at the bar to talk to. He was always finding new friends, people she was never introduced to. She smoothed the red crepe-de-chine of her frock with gloved hands and waited.

When she opened her eyes, the red balloon was gone and Mother and Winnie with it. She scanned the beach and saw them in the distance, heading towards the promenade. She jumped to her feet and ran after them. Why had they left without her? And where was the red balloon?

She’d made a fuss earlier about getting that balloon and Mother had told her to stop drawing attention to herself, that there were to be no balloons until they got to the beach. She’d sulked then, something she was good at. Winnie never sulked. Ethel hated her sometimes.

“Are you all right, Ethel?” she heard a voice say. What did they mean, all right? She was here, wasn’t she? It seemed a long way to come just to get a balloon but she supposed they knew best. She was getting thirsty – Reg had been gone such a long time. “Can I have a drink of water?” she asked. Somebody made an impatient gesture and she saw that the tea in front of her had hardly been touched. She wished she’d stayed at home now.

Stories

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