The House of Maynard.
The first dead body I ever saw belonged to Mrs Maynard.
Belonged? That sounds stupid. The truth of the matter is, that when I saw it, it didn’t belong to anyone – not me, not you and certainly not to Mrs Maynard. How could it? Mrs Maynard was dead and she had no further use for it so, it certainly didn’t belong to her. No, if it belonged to anyone then it had to be to the tall, thin, miserable man in the black suit. The man who had come to take her away.
All these thoughts and more swam through my head as I gazed down on the old lady in the bed, who, to be quite honest I didn’t recognise until I heard someone mention her name. I was puzzled, confused and more than a little frightened. I was beginning to wonder why my mother had brought me to this place. To look at a dead person? If so, why? Was this another one of those weird grown-up things? Was this something about the necessity of facing up to the truth about life? Something to do with the health-giving qualities of not hiding behind statements like, ‘Mrs Maynard’s gone to sleep’. Or was this about inflicting enough trauma upon your innocent child to make him wet himself? After all, this was how me and spinach were introduced. Shock treatment. Green and horrible it suddenly appeared on my plate. Seems to have done the trick. I haven’t touched it since.
When I finally realised who the stiff was, I calmed down. I wasn’t frightened anymore, just surprised as to how different she looked in death. Younger for one thing. Her face had taken on a smoothness that belied her one hundred and fifty years. Ok, so I now know that she wasn’t and couldn’t have been one hundred and fifty years old but at the time I was a dumb kid, and kids, dumb or otherwise, live in a world of their own making. They use their imagination. They fantasise.
They exaggerate. They paint the world from a pallet of their own choosing. In short, they tell huge lies. And that was us. Me, Fat Freddy, Smells Warbutton and Four Eyes Phillips.
Me and the guys had decided some time ago that Mrs Maynard was the oldest person in the world. By our calculations she was somewhere in the region of one hundred and fifty years old. If you’re wondering how we came to this ridiculous figure, let me explain. Once, we’d spent a whole afternoon peering through her windows and following her on the street, all in an attempt to count the wrinkles on her face, after Fat Freddy told us that was how you determined someone’s age. When Smells Warbutton lied through his teeth and told us he had counted one hundred and fifty folds of skin, that was it, one hundred and fifty years it was. Whatever her age, we couldn’t have been far wrong because here she was, dead, and as I related my experience to the boys that evening, we agreed, only very old people die.
It’s a terrible admission to make but there was no sadness in us. If I remember correctly, a short discussion ensued on whether or not there was life after death but that was all. The only other thing I remember was Smells Warbutton insisting that heaven was full of large naked ladies and fat flying babies. Oh yes, and Four Eyes Phillips declaring with the kind of certainty that I now associate with Christian fundamentalists, that when he arrived in heaven he wouldn’t have to wear the thick ‘milk-bottle’ lenses that we’d all become so used to, but that was about it. No-one expressed the view that they were sorry to see her go or thought that we ought to pool any loose cash we had to send flowers. Please, don’t get us wrong, it wasn’t like we were rejoicing or anything, I mean death is, well, death, and I guess, the closer you are or were to the deceased then the more it’s gonna hurt. We were a million miles away.
To be totally honest, Fat Freddie, Smells Warbutton, Four Eyes Phillips and me, were, I’m almost ashamed to admit, grief free. And I’ll tell you for why.
What me and the guys were experiencing is best described as a sense of relief. A good feeling that can only be compared to that inner buzz you got when Maisy Day tipped you the wink, nodded towards the waste ground behind the Polly’s Bar and you knew…you just knew…it was your turn. Yeah, that’s what it was, relief.
You see, and believe me when I say I mean no disrespect, Mrs Maynard played a part in our lives that was now, thankfully, gone for ever. What Mrs Maynard did, or, to be more precise, used to do, was our parent’s knitting. This was how it worked.
In those days times were hard. Luxuries, and that includes food and heat, were thin on the ground. Day to day living was hand to mouth, no-one had any money and if you were lucky enough to find yourself unexpectedly at the correct end of an inheritance, legal or otherwise, you upped sticks and got the hell out of there. The lucky ones left before their dust did, and who could blame them? For us poor bastards that were left behind, the struggle continued. The name of the game was survival and the rules worked, as near as they could, on the ‘something for nothing’ basis, which, I have to make clear, did not include stealing (necessarily). At least not from your own. If you stole from your neighbour then you were dead meat, no question. What we did was help each other out. True. We used our brains and looked to our own for answers to all those questions on the all-important subject of, ‘getting by’. Recycling for example.
Recycling was a skilful necessity in our neighbourhood, a long time before you folks began separating your green and brown wine bottles. For us, much was made of discovering and exploiting the human resources and skills that existed within our own community.
If someone had a particular insight into anything that would benefit the neighbourhood as a whole, then it was harnessed immediately and used positively for the good of all. In Mrs Maynard’s case it happened to be knitting. Which she did, all of the time, day in day out.
Every hour that God sent Mrs Maynard knitted. From the early hours of the morning ‘till late at night, weekends included. She was knitting when she gave birth to her two sets of twins and she knitted graveside when her husband (Mr Maynard), was laid to rest. She knitted subconsciously. She knitted in her sleep, and when nature called, she kept on knitting. When she walked, she knitted. When she talked, she knitted. She was even found needles in hand (so they say), when the Grim Reaper made his personal call. I have a theory that he only turned up to order a pullover. Unfortunately for Mrs Maynard, the shock was too great. In truth, her constant clitter- clatter only ceased when she was utilising her other skill, unravelling.
Mrs Maynard knitted and unravelled for her country.
History has it that when Mrs Maynard’s skills with the needles first came to the attention of the community, family members desperate for warm clothes for their long-suffering children, emerged from the darkest depths of the neighbourhood laden down with sacks of worn out clothing to be unravelled and resurrected. People, (who if they really loved their kids should have known better), would arrive on her doorstep, pay her the agreed upon fee and within one calendar month Mrs Maynard would come up with the goods, (usually a pullover. In my case, always a pullover). In this way it wasn’t long before Mrs Maynard became the stuff of legend and, I hate to admit, a curse on every child’s lips. You see, us kids, unlike our parents, hated and despised Mrs Maynard’s woollen concoctions.
To put it bluntly, (for this was how we kids saw it), forget the money saved, forget the fact that she kept us warm in winter, the point was, (and try telling this to your ma and pa), the point was, Mrs Maynard’s woollen wear made us look stupid. In our neighbourhood, it was a recognised phenomenon that kids who wore Maynard never smiled again.
Unfortunately, me and my friends were ‘dressed’ almost exclusively by Mrs Maynard and it was not something that we wore well. We carried the mark of Maynard with shame and disgust. The pullovers were grey and the wool stiff from overuse and distant genetic memories of having been a sock in a previous life. And that was not all…
Mrs Maynard smoked. And I mean smoked. We’re talking heavyweight inhalation here. We’re talking eighty, ninety, maybe a hundred cigarettes (if she was on form), a day. While her knurled, nico-tined fingers gripped her tools tightly and clicked mercilessly away, a long unfiltered King-size dangled dangerously from her lip, sending a thin stream of blue smoke upward, to filter through and stain her hair yellow for ever.
Now, I’ve been a smoker. Although I quit some years ago I consider myself lucky enough not to have fallen into the trap of becoming holier-than-thou. If people want to smoke that’s fine by me. And to be quite honest when I see others pulling on the weed, I still feel a distant pang in my chest and a sense of missing out. What I’m saying is this, I have no problem with those who smoke. Invent me a safe cigarette, reduce the likelihood of me rotting from the inside out and I’ll suck on it with the rest of them. However, I would have to draw the line at Mrs Maynard. She was a definite no-go area.
You see, when Mrs Maynard smoked, she coughed. And when Mrs Maynard coughed, she would empty the contents of her bubbling lungs over mine and my friends embryo pullovers. This meant, and not wishing to go into too much detail, er, stuff, mingled with the fibres. You never really knew what it was you were pulling over your head. The anguished cry that would echo around the neighbourhood usually about Christmas time was , ‘Mrs Maynard’s pullovers stink’. This was not a fashion statement, this was a literal fact. When the finished article arrived from Mrs Maynard’s house it was seventy-five percent nicotine, ten percent an unidentifiable gluttonous substance and fifteen percent recycled wool. To put it on was akin to dipping your face into a janitor’s bucket full of week old cigarette butts. It was horrible and vile both at the same time. It made you feel like you had smoked Mrs Maynard’s total cigarette intake. It left you with a blinding headache, failing eyesight and a nicotine addiction problem that you would regret in later life. I hated those pullovers with a passion and I don’t mind telling you that the knowledge that another one was in construction and possibly near completion, gave me regular nightmares. One of which I shall attempt to describe.
It was always the same dream. I would be in a roomful of discarded socks, buried up to my neck in a deep pile of grey unravelled and unwashed wool. With my arms trapped at my sides like I was buried in concrete, the only part of me that moved freely was my eyes. Suddenly Mrs Maynard would appear. Cigarette in mouth and needles already moving in a blur. she walked hurriedly into the room, the clitter – clatter of needle against needle the only sound as time began to pass like a film running at high speed.
The days became weeks and the weeks months, as the unravelled wool transformed before my eyes into a pile of stiff pullovers that grew ever higher. Like watching the Big Bang itself, my senses became full of the act of creation. ‘Pearl this, plain that…
let there be pullover…and there was. And Mrs Maynard looked down on the pullovers and saw that they were good’. With head bowed and steam and smoke blowing from out of her ears, Mrs Maynard’s hands moved faster and faster. Cigarettes burnt endlessly, one after another in a fiery red glow and with a heat more intense than the surface of the sun. Thick layers of yellow smoke hung suspended from the ceiling, while the floor drowned in a sticky green slime. On and on. Hour after hour. Day after day. Hell on earth. Until, finally, thankfully, I would awake. With the sweat pouring from my body and the ever-present odour of a million cigarette ends pervading my room, I‘d rise shakily from my bed, close the drawer that contained the source of my nightmare, (my pullover drawer), pinch my nostrils and try to return to sleep and hopefully more welcome dreams.
As I stood hand in hand with my mother looking down on that lifeless corpse, I have to admit I smiled. Cruel as it may seem, with Mrs Maynard dead and gone, life would now take on a much more pleasant hue.
I have a question for you. Only one guess allowed.
What did my mother make me wear for Mrs Maynard’s funeral?
Time starts now.…