Daydreaming, I used to imagine the atmosphere. Sirens, bomb shelters, airplanes, broken streets, children in shorts and ankle socks with no elastic, old women picking over the remnants of their life. Queuing, always queuing, for bread, or sugar, everyone groaning under the weight of war. I imagined that silence was more than that. Silence was dark, expectant, and menacing; strange things loitered in the corners, just out of reach. Traumatized by food stamps and curfews, and each left bereft, my great aunts did their weekly shopping as though still caught up way back then. They’d zig zag from shop to shop searching out the cheapest bread, or cans of anything as long as it was one penny less expensive than in the other place. They’d zig zag all day, up and down and across the town, filling their wheelie trolleys to the brim as if still controlled by rationing.
They lived secretive lives all together in a huge Victorian house, with two long sets of stairs between the front door and the kitchen. They’d heave their Saturday haul all the way to the yellow Formica table, and then spend hours packing the long dank cupboards at either side of the fireplace. Those presses were stock piled with mushy peas, beans, rice, tea, anchovies, salad cream, and packet upon orange packet of cream crackers. The ladder to reach the top shelf was stored in a gap between the right hand cupboard and the window wall. It wasn’t used much, and only my tallest great aunt was allowed to climb up. One side, by the window, was reserved for Christmas cake and puddings. The other side, which hid a slew of copper pipes from the back boiler in the fire place, was used to store a hoard of old, rusty baking tins. My great aunts had a carpet in their kitchen. That always struck me as odd, as if the room had been something else, but was forced into service against its will. The kitchen sink, continually stacked high, was balanced on four wooden legs pressed against the window, in the place, I imagined, where a dressing table might once have stood. A bottled gas cooker, with eye level grill, always spotless, was all the rage in the 1940s. Coated in creamy white enamel, in my minds eye it stood where feather pillows might once have been.
Their one bathroom was on in the return a few steps up from the kitchen. It had a carpet too. Someone decided to paint the carpet with purple emulsion to brighten it up, so it was hard underfoot, and hideous when damp. There was a large water geyser over the enamel bath, and a rusty water mark below the hot water tap. To the right of the window was a Victorian hand basin with squared off corners. A clothes line hung from wall to wall across the window, which, like every window in the house, was sheathed in voluminous netting, but in this case, gathered in the center with an elastic band. A wide window sill provided an ideal home for a magnificent array of soap of every size, colour and smell, from places as far away as Majorca, Malta, the Isle of Man, and Kilkenny. Wrapped in decorative paper, or clear plastic, some with ribbons and bows, others decorated with tiny flowers, nobody ever opened a soap from the window sill. My great aunts used Pears soap, one bar, shared between the bath and the hand basin.
If not in the kitchen, my great aunts lived in their large front drawing room, so large that it held two enormous couches and several plump armchairs at one end, and a huge dining table at the other. The tallest aunt, the one who found it hardest to bend, emptied the ashes and washed the tiled hearth before setting the fire with tightly rolled and curled lengths of newspaper. She hid stacks of newspapers behind the couch, covered with an old table cloth, just in case. Another, the eldest, hid little piles of chocolate and sweets down the side of her cushion. They sat every night, on top of the coal fire, sometimes in unison, but often disgruntled, curling their hair in clips, just as they had always done, and hot milky drinking tea from china cups and saucers, the teapot idling on an old iron stand in front of the flames. Sometimes they watched the television. More often they listened to the radio, or the wireless, as they called it. They never listened to music, and they did not buy books, preferring instead to go to the library. Brought up in a strange world, as they were, they had many fears; the youngest was afraid of the dark. Throughout her adult life she shared a room with her sister, and slept, they said, with one eye open, just in case.
They used to talk about the First World War, and how brave it was of their uncle Kevin to go off to Australia so soon after his training, not that he had any choice. His faded portrait, sepia with age, was encased in a blackened silver frame on top of the battered old ornamental piano. But it wasn’t the war that killed Father Kevin. It was the ‘flu pandemic that began the year he left All Hallows. His one year in Australia, helping the sick, was such that survivors erected a monument in his honour. My great aunts were so proud. Always so proud.
One by one my great aunts; public servant, insurance broker, and self-declared secret agent, were gradually lost to the past. Back to bomb scares, bread lines, fuel shortages, and rations. So far back that they didn’t recognise anyone from the present any more. They each found a peculiar sort of comfort there, amid the strangeness loitering in the darkest corners. After all their years here and there, they did not see the dawn of the new millennium.
Their home, always stock piled with cans and packets, newspaper, clips, and china tea cups, is home to strangers now. The old cupboards are long gone. All trace of their lives erased. I think of them often, and especially now when I walk at night. We must keep our distance, wear masks, and isolate. The world is a strange place. Somehow, I think they would feel right at home.