Black is a shade of purple, and the fruit of the damson tree is too, if you look close. It's said that the more red a purple contains the warmer and more comforting it becomes. Trying now to remember a warm purple-red smell defeats me, yet when I was a child I could get a whiff of Granda's damson jam a mile off, Granda's delicious purple-red, damson jam.
When the ripe bitter damsons were harvested in mid-September, my Grandfather bought pounds of the purple-black fruits from stalls in old St John's market, before it was demolished in 1964. The fruit may have journeyed all the way from Westmoreland, now known as Cumbria, where in April the soft white damson blossom lit the valleys and tarns with a sight to lift any beaten spirit.
With his cargo of seasonal fruit, Granda travelled on infrequent buses, to the council house in what was then the very rural suburb of Walton Clubmoor. Once home he ensured, with the right amount of patriarchal authority, that the heavy weight of damsons were washed and then put in a big pan with the correctly guessed amount of sugar and water to boil. Fruit skins and stones were skimmed from the jammy mix which he then stirred dutifully with a wooden spoon that was dyed as purple as a Roman toga, and kept especially for the task. In turn the old man would lift my brother and sister and me to watch as the cheap plentiful fruit turned from bitter purple-black to a sweeter pectin rich purple-red.
Everyday on cold autumn and winter mornings before school, three bowls were arranged on a scrubbed and bleached wooden table. We three would queue at the table to watch Granda pour his Goldilocks porridge into the bowls. He'd make a dimple in the creamy porridge with the back of a metal spoon and with great flourish, drip Tate and Lyle's syrup into the dimple to become a puddle of gold. Then with the exuberance of a showman he would dot nuggets of butter around the syrup and run a stream of milk around the circle of porridge. It was always, always delicious. My grandfather's cooking skills and a constant world of domestic quietude, with jam pots full and herbs on the hearth at Christmas and Granda waiting at the gate, for our return from school meant that we three children had a warm, purple-red child hood, protected from the dark iodine blue of my mother's mental illness.
It's hard to imagine, but my mother missed being away from bomb-damaged and war scarred Scotland Road. It was where she'd grown up, first got work at fourteen and giggled with friends as they ran away from falling bombs, after getting all dressed up to go out dancing. She was young and pretty and famously stylish and as war progressed had her size zero clothes made by a dressmaker from limited fabrics into something with serious wow factor.
That May of 1941Agnes and her girl friends left the dance hall laughing, arms linked, as they made their way home through hot and smoky city streets. Above in the short darkness of the May night, enemy aircraft flew laden with bombs. But for the girls the danger of wearing Evening in Paris perfume ritually applied behind each ear and onto each wrist and daringly into the dip of the throat, allowed them a brief thrill of escape, to enjoy youthful freedom and independence and illicit pleasure, much to the disapproval of their elders.
As the girls heard the clatter of ack-ack guns and the drone of enemy planes, they talked about the suave man in dancing shoes who'd treated Izzie to a couple of port and lemon drinks, which the other girls had taken sips of, when he was looking the other way. While they walked the girl's chatter quietened, because they had to shout to be heard and the smoke from the burning docks was making their breathing difficult.
Nearing her street Agnes was more concerned about changing out of her clothes and wiping lipstick from her mouth. While she struggled in the outside lavatory of her father's house her three friends stood in the unlit back yard. 'C'mon Aggie will yeah' whispered Izzie sharply 'we'll be getting a taste of your Da's bad temper. It explodes worse than the bombs.'
'Oh Izzie go away, it doesn't. It's all the worry and the war' Agnes shouted defensively. Her father's unpredictable tantrums at his youngest daughter's growing rebellion and her fun-loving Ma just two years dead, was an ache she was always mindful of.
The waiting girls tried to suppress their laughter, as the blitz gained a killing momentum all around them.
Agnes, persuaded by Izzie's impatience slipped out of her dress and gave it to her friend to borrow for the next dance.
She felt cheered by the hoarse shouts of 'Good-night, don't let the black-out bugs bite' as the girls walked down the street to their nearby homes. Changing in the downstairs bathroom, into hidden clothing more suitable to be with the family sheltering from the Luftwaffe, in the cupboard under the stairs, Agnes thought about joining the Wrens because she liked the uniform. Maybe the girls would join up with her. Izzie's home took a direct hit later that week, so she never got to wear the borrowed dress after all.
Agnes never got to join the Wrens, her ambitions were put down as fanciful by her protective father and older brother instead she ended up clearing metal shavings from torpedoes on a production line.
Months of unending night work with little sleep, as well as the leering and groping attentions of Mr Matt the supervisor amid the clamorous noise of the factory, where yelling to be heard added to the tormenting din of that essential war work.
Agnes longed to be calm, maybe to have space for silly thoughts about denied freedoms. She missed her Ma and Izzie and with the conflict giving no time to grieve, in her own way, she became an objector to the brutal futility of war. Her three brothers and new sweetheart were in the Merchant Navy, so manufacturing torpedoes made life unbearable. Made ill by compulsory war work, Agnes was hospitalised and a diagnosis of schizophrenia was assigned to her. It's stigma never left.
Poor mum. Maybe her beauty was meant for mischief and fortune. What with Granda's famous jam and my seafaring father's homecoming treasures, when paranoia came to visit and stayed overlong, she couldn't compete. And what of those silly thoughts about denied freedoms? I bet those girls that braved the May blitz to go dancing, would've encouraged her to leave home and join the Wrens.
When dementia began to hamper her style, a Glenn Miller CD would have us both exhausted with silly moments of freedom, just dancing and laughing.
Monica Golding March 2010