My Cousin Norman

Auntie Dottie was my Uncle Bert’s sister, but you’d never know it. Uncle Bert was a jolly sort, the first to roll up the carpet for a good old knees-up. Any excuse would do. The only thing Auntie Dottie did with her knees was keep them firmly clamped together, along with her thin lips and bony little hands. According to Auntie Maggie, Auntie Dottie had the makings of a perfect stranger, but she said it quietly, so as not to hurt Uncle Bert’s feelings.

Auntie Maggie really took against Dottie when I came along. It had something to do with Dottie telling her that I must have ‘bad blood’ on account of being born ‘on the wrong side of the blanket’ and that she and Uncle Bert must be mad to bring me into the family. I wasn’t sure what blankets had to do with it, but I knew it upset my beloved Auntie Maggie a lot. So the atmosphere was always a bit tense on the rare occasions we made the trek from our cafe in Soho to see Dottie and her son Norman at her boarding house in Finsbury Park. They never came to us. Dottie thought the folk around our way might corrupt her boy.

Norman was born on the right side of the blanket five years before the war started. Sadly, his dad bought it somewhere in France, which left Dottie in sole possession of the Finsbury Park house and Norman. To keep them, she took in ‘paying guests’; she was too posh for lodgers. For me, cousin Norman and Sally Emery, the youngest of Dottie’s paying guests, made the visits to that bleak house bearable. Sally, who had been orphaned by a doodlebug, was pretty and full of fun. I liked her.

Even after rationing was over, Auntie Dottie’s mean dinners never varied. We’d get a piece of shrivelled meat, over-boiled cabbage, spuds, a small, grey wedge of apple pie and a dribble of watery custard. We always took the precaution of stoking up on a hearty breakfast before we left home, but I felt sorry for Norman, Sally and the other guests, who had to live on that stuff. Once I’d forced the last lump down, Norman would usually plonk me on his shoulders and carry me up to Sally’s rooms in the attic and we’d play hide and seek, snakes and ladders or a card game like snap, well away from Auntie Dottie’s disapproving gaze. We’d guzzle orange squash or milk and biscuits and we’d laugh until we cried. In good weather, we’d go to the park and rush around like mad things playing tag, or chucking a ball about until we collapsed in a giggling heap.

Norman and Sally were sweet on each other, but shy about it. I could tell this by the soppy looks they’d get on their faces. Occasionally their hands would brush furtively under the table. Of course, living in a cafe, I was a seasoned people watcher and they couldn’t fool me. Naturally, I kept my gob shut in front of Dottie and saved any tasty news items for the bus home. Auntie Maggie lapped it up, being a romantic soul, but Uncle Bert would pretend to be above idle gossip. He’d stare out of the window, but I’d catch the reflection of a smile in the glass and a gleam of interest in his eyes.

When Norman wasn’t there to join in our games, Sally’s quiet friend Nora often was. She wasn’t as much fun as Norman, because she hardly spoke at all and then only in a whisper, but she was good for games and walks in the park with me and Sally. They’d stroll arm-in-arm, talking quietly about work or what they’d seen at the pictures. They were both typists at the piano factory in Camden Town, where Norman was an apprentice French polisher, whatever that was. Nora didn’t like to rush around like Norman. She stood rooted to the spot if you threw a ball at her. Still, she would push me on the swing for ages. Nora was all right, just not as good a laugh as Norman.

This particular Sunday, Norman was off playing football with the lads from work, but Sally had arranged to meet Nora at the gates of the park right after dinner, so we were in a hurry to choke down the last slab of pastry and get away. There was a flurry in the hall as we grabbed our coats and Sally tied a headscarf around her dark curls and then we were ready. We sang out our cheery goodbyes, thrilled to get out into the blustery wind and away from the stuffy, brown little dining room and the reek of boiled cabbage.

We were marching down the path, singing as loud as we dared about the sun having his hat on, when a slight tearing sound stopped us in our tracks. We looked down and there, climbing slowly up Sally’s right leg was a ladder. Sally gasped. ‘Oh no! It’s my last pair and it’s Sunday.’ Then, so quietly I almost didn’t catch it, she added, ‘I daren’t borrow Norman’s, he’ll go mad.’ ‘Rosie love,’ she said a little louder, I’ll just nip inside and stop it with a dab of wet soap. I tell you what, why don’t you run to Nora and tell her I’ll be along in a tick?’

I skipped up to within sight of the waiting figure in the shabby navy coat. I stopped and took a long look at the blond hair peeping from beneath the maroon headscarf, the sensible twill skirt, 30 denier light tan, fully fashioned stockings and the sturdy black court shoes. Then I grabbed the black-gloved and suddenly familiar hand in mine. ‘Next time, Norman, why don’t you visit us at our cafe? The grub’s much better and my friend Sugar, you know the bloke I told you that I’m going to marry when I grow up?’ Norman managed a nod, although his gob was so wide open in amazement, his chin almost hit the concrete, ‘Well, he’s a dab hand at making beautiful frocks for gentlemen. All shimmery and sparkly they are. You’d love ‘em.’

This time, I noticed, Uncle Bert didn’t stare out of the window on the ride home. He joined Auntie Maggie in staring at me, with a big, silly grin on his kisser and eyes that twinkled like Sugar’s sequins.

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