July 7, 2009 – Love and Boiled Eggs
I’ve been thinking about Old Kate. My mother used to call her that, though it wasn’t her real name. I never heard what it was. During the 1939-45 war and afterwards, every few weeks, there would be a knock at the door, mid afternoon. And there was Old Kate, just off the bus outside our front gate. She was very small, probably no more than 4ft 10 as I recall. She was completely Victorian in appearance. She had a long black coat over a long, glistening black dress (velvet I think) and wore shiny, black button up boots, with pointed toes. The velvet smelt clean but it smelt old. I don’t remember a hat, shawl or handbag but she must have had them.
She was an old friend of my father’s mother, who died before I was born. They had lived in the same ‘buildings’ together as young women. At regular intervals Old Kate, who was unmarried, would take the bus and call on the two sons, three daughters and the grandchildren of her old friend. I think that, in a way, she was checking up on us for her.
I was scared of her. She was nothing but sweetness and gentleness but she was so old and stooping and her clothes were so black. She had an almost translucently clear complexion, like a nun, and hair so silver it was almost gold. Always my mother would boil her an egg which she would serve with bread and butter. Then she would give the old lady a slice of home-made cake. Every piece, literally every crumb, of the meal was consumed. The plate was as clean as if it had been freshly washed. They had known real hardship in the buildings of London EC1, before the first world war.
To Old Kate my father was ‘little Frankie’ the youngest of her friend’s five children When he came back from the war he would escort her to the bus stop after she left our house, and wait with her until the 187 bus took her off to her bedsit, somewhere in Gospel Oak or Kentish Town. I can see him there now, in his office suit, aged about 38.
Old Kate died and one of my aunts sorted out her few possessions in her one room. I wish I had not been so scared and shy of her as a small boy. I can’t remember ever exchanging a word with her – just standing by the table as she ate her tea. I half remember that she would give me a shilling piece, though I don’t think she can have afforded it. She clearly wanted to know her old friend’s children. I think my mum was probably wrong to nickname her Old Kate. My older uncles and aunts, less anxious, less competitive, might have given her real name to her. As far as I know none of my cousins remembers it.
She never failed to keep contact with us. I would love now to know of her memories and of her life with my grandma and her family in the buildings. I remember she had been ‘in service’, though I did not know then what that meant. Perhaps, but for the first war, she would have married too.
I wonder what would happen today if Old Kate, a shiny and silvery replica of Queen Victoria were to walk sedately and sweetly up the drive and knock on the door of a new generation. Surely she would be given a boiled egg, bread and butter and cake.