The Little Red Coat
The Little Red Coat.
NOSTALGIA [nostalgia] n.
1. Longing for a happier or better time in the past.
It was late, sometime around one or two in the morning. I was sitting at the foot of my bed, sipping lukewarm tea, flicking through a copy of Diamonds Are Forever and scribbling notes down for my upcoming Bond book. I was writing nights then. Gnawing at the back of my mind was worry: my Nan wasn’t picking up the landline and I knew, like I do too, that my Mum can’t sleep if she’s remotely anxious about anything in life.
There was a scraping at my door and the squeaky bronze handle turned and my Mum appeared, flustered.
‘That was the carers, Nan’s had a fall.’
I think I leapt up and asked what happened but I was tired and not taking a lot in. Mum had to get to Edmonton, North Middlesex hospital, as quick as possible. And, to prevent the risk of a car crash, and praying nothing serious had happened, I asked to go with her, possibly seeing my Nan for the last time in my life.
Thankfully, it wasn’t.
Bishop’s Stortford - 20th February 2017 – 8 months later.
Nan smiled as I pushed over a hot cup of sugary tea, one sugar and one sweetener, not too milky, across the table. Just how she likes it. She looked how she always does: full head of black hair, immaculate nails, Marks’ slippers, skirt, cardigan and clutching her handbag for dear life, we’d only moved from the lounge into the dining room. She placed it on the floor and flicked through the red A4 file that lay before her. I went for my pen at this.
Inside it contained a mass of school reports, photographs, drawings, paintings, short stories: my academic and creative life in subject dividers. She flicked through it all, giggling, even crying and came to a stop at my year six primary history project simply named “Joyce Emmeline Turner”. She looked at it with a degree of confusion: 82 and suffering with dementia which had become more so prevalent in the last twelve months. When she realised what it was she laughed to the forgotten time that I had written it. Upon taking a mouthful of scolding sugary tea I gingerly asked about her experiences during the Second World War.
Nuneham Courtenay, Oxford – 1940.
Picture it: two little girls, far from home, standing “on a grass verge”, fresh breeze blowing their hair about, a steam train billowing black smoke and discolouring the blue sky above: they’re aged six and seven. Picture it: two little girls, terrified without their Mother and Father, “both [with] red coats” on, far from home.
A middle-aged lady admires them from the opposing track. Two red specks in the smoke. She crosses over to them and nods to the man in charge. “I’ll take these two girls,” she says. She likes the colour red. She’s a maid for Lord and Lady Harcourt. She soon takes them home to her husband, Cecil, and the children address them as Uncle and Auntie Frances thereon.
We were well looked after [in Oxford]. One night a doodlebug bomb dropped on the corner of Spurling Road, near us on Radley Road, and near Bruce Castle Park [back in Tottenham]. My friend Rosemary’s face was cut to pieces. It blew bits of glass and concrete everywhere. We still keep in touch… Christmas cards, that sort of thing. I was in bed with [my sister], glass came through the windows, the headboard came down and bricks smothered us. It was over the road. She lived in Broadwater Road [Broadwater Farm] and didn’t have friends. They said ‘Alf, it’s down your way’ he ran for miles to us. But yeah, what I was saying, kids bullied her for the scars. I looked after her. We were evacuated soon after. Then the next thing we were all lined by this bus and went to the station… I can’t remember which one, it’s been donkey years, and rode a train to Oxford. We were told to have a hammer-sack. I sat at the back [of the bus] and scoffed my sister’s peanuts from it.”
“Did you know anyone on the bus Nan?” I asked.
“Oh, we were all in touch, my primary school mates, school friends, they’re all probably dead now.”
The oily sheen in her countenance looked almost dry, bitter with the look of life, a face now acclimatised to it all. Desensitised.
“I’ve got so much to thank Auntie Frances for. She was wonderful, loved us. I was with her when she died. I’m very lucky who I met in my life, when I think about it. My Alan, your Granddad, ran me down to Oxford. She was without a doubt, a second Mum. She said I was her favourite before she died. Jordan, the war brought a lot of horror and nightmares and the best thing that came from it was Auntie Francis. She was wonderful. I was so lucky. I’m very lucky who I met in my life, when I think about it.”
Nan flicked through the booklet, I scribbled profusely, she spotted a picture of her father during a VE party, partaking in “the Uncle Dennis’ nobbly knees competition” it was during the war and she was laughing, “look at him” she cried. Then her face turned to a scowl.
“My Dad was a very jealous man. He used to knock my Mum and me about. When I was working at Burgess’ department store my Uncle Victor picked me up from the firm in two-door, maroon red coupe, it was a sports car and had the hood. He was the estate agent, the rich one of the family, this was the ‘50s and if you had a car then you were certainly doing well for yourself. He picked me up and took me for a ride in it.
When I got back home my Dad was in, he said: ‘Why’s my dinner not ready?’
I told him I had been for a drive with Uncle Victor in his car, he was jealous of him. He said ‘And you haven’t got it ready?’”
She pondered over the thought of her father for a moment. She loved him immensely, that we all knew as she went on to care for him when he too succumbed to dementia, but with the look in her eye, fixed upon the oak table before us, I knew she was battling with him.
“My Mum had bronchial asthma, the London smogs killed her, I’ve always said that. When she was in hospital he hit her. I had bought two bags of apples for Christmas: one for him and one for a friend. Apparently, I had given [her friend] the better apples. I’ll never forgive myself for leaving her. I couldn’t stop him. He hit me. I walked out, Auntie Win (my Nan’s sister) said ‘I can’t take this anymore’ and I went with her. He’d been shouting at us. Auntie Roma (my Nan’s other sister) was left to be with him on her own. I’ve never forgiven myself for leaving my Mum. I was absolutely petrified of him. We had a terrible life with him.”
She didn’t cry. I knew she wouldn’t over him. She was far too tough to cry over it. She rubbed her head and took a long mouthful from her tea, now lukewarm at best with the flurry of conversation. The room felt hot, tense, the air thick with uncensored, uncut truth. Truth I hadn’t been privy to as a young boy, now a man, I was ready. She repeated a line from beforehand:
“The war brought a lot of horror and a lot of nightmares.”
That’s all she said, drinking the rest of her emotions in, rationalizing separate disjointed thoughts in her head before coming out with:
“Mark (my mother’s brother) had it. The nasty streak. Runs in the family, and my heart’s been broken many times over him too, but your Mum meant too much to me to have him back in my life. I do wonder if he’s all right but I don’t dwell on it.”
She stopped, staring out into space, trying to bisect the enclosing darkness through the dining room windows, she hates it.
“All I hope is that he’s having a good life, but there you go. I don’t dwell on things Jordan but what will come will come. As long as you’re happy that’s the main thing.”
She had her wall up now, and I didn’t want to break it.
She read the short excerpt, from my original biography, aloud for me, laughing. “He was a little devil, weren’t he? And I agreed to it.”
When she was ready, she said:
“I found him dead in the garage. I ran round to the ambulance station. ‘Come quick please!”
I interjected. “I thought you phoned them?”
“No, I ran (a sixty-nine-year-old lady) round there, and they drove me back round in the ambulance. He was dead.”
She was looking over their wedding photograph now, her, a beautiful young lady in a well-cut white dress, him, in a dark suit, probably pinstriped, gleaming oxfords, hair already receding, but the most handsome man alive. Their last words were just the “usual chitchat” she said in tears, I could barely move my blue pen across the paper to create words now, she didn’t see me crying. The same emotions of anger, anger that I only had him for six short years, the man I aspire to be like in every way, the man who raised me, gone, just like that. Seventy two. Heart attack. I was six. I never attended the funeral.
“My proudest achievement was having my children and my grandson… I still miss him, I say good night to him every night… You came along, I look at my photo of you every night and talk to you. Silly I know… I led a bit of a boring” she stopped herself at life. “No. No, it wasn’t boring.”
Harlow, Essex - February 21st. My grandmother and I sit on the front pew at the crematorium looking over at the coffin of my great Uncle Ken, the last tie to my grandfather. There are many people here. His grandchildren screeching into cheap provided tissues, Morecombe and Wise’s “Bring Me Sunshine” murmurs from speakers above the exit point leading out into the courtyard of flowers. She’s sobbing into one of these tissues, I take the sodden thing from her, pocket it and hand her another, taking her wet hand in mine and clenching it with reassurance.
In the car my mother jokes: “Mum, Jordan’s pockets are filled with your manky tissues, he took them off you during the service and kept them. If that isn’t love I don’t know what is!”
She looks to me, regarding me up and down, my white shirt, cufflinks, singled-breasted suit of navy, black tie and clip, polished oxfords and clean shaven. She sees her husband in me at times.
‘My boy,’ she says, squeezing my hand and looking back out into the distance, nostalgia gleaming in her eyes and a red coat on her back.
Joyce Emmeline Turner, my Nan. (6th December 1934 -)
 Oxford Paperback Dictionary & Thesaurus. Third ed. (Oxford: OUP, 2009)
 Fleming, I. Diamonds Are Forever. (London: Jonathan Cape, 1956)
 Doodlebug – The V-1 flying bomb, also known to the Allies as the buzz bomb.
 VE – Victory in Europe parties, used to celebrate the defeat of the Nazis in 1945.