The Wedding Picture
This image was sent to me out of the blue the other day by my mother via Facebook Messenger. It seemed somehow incongruous that a snapshot from a bygone age would arrive in such a thoroughly modern manner. Still. I suppose that we've all got pictures like this in dusty biscuit tins somewhere at the bottom of cupboards. But given the events of the last few years this one struck a deep resounding chord with me.
I'm the little chap at the front, by the way, the young fellow in white with the somewhat less than masculine stance. Although in my defence one is never really going to look macho wearing white shorts and a bowtie. I guess I must have been three or four at the time and if I really strain I do actually have some sort of dim recollection of that day, well of those shorts anyway. Standing next to me is my elder sister. We both look so innocent, as should be the way with the very young; she not knowing that she would run away from home at the age of sixteen and be mother to two of her own girls within three years; me never guessing that the shock of hair I was casually sporting at the time would also run away from home by the time it reached thirty.
Standing behind me with an inscrutable expression on his face as he watches, presumably, the best man snog his new bride, is my Uncle Jack. Uncle Jack was semi-famous in Burnley, the location for this picture, for apocryphally playing football for Blackpool, for bearing a passing resemblance to Freddie Garrity of Freddie And The Dreamers fame, and for most definitely possessing a black belt in karate, which he ofttimes used to dispatch much larger men after closing time.
Directly behind him is George Wright, my step-grandfather. Despised by my own father but loved by the infantine me, George was a long distance lorry driver, one-time stand-up comedian and former sheet music salesman on Blackpool Pier. George liked to boast that he always carried £100 in cash. (When he died it was discovered that his stash was actually newspaper sandwiched between a couple of tenners.) George also had a strange penchant for having his Brylcreemed hair combed by yours truly. As a child I would spend hours and hours combing and brushing his hair as he sat and watched TV. He had a special stainless steel coiffure set that he would bring out for this purpose. George would literally purr with delight as I did so.
Before George died of cancer in the 1970s, he paid a visit to our house in Bristol. I remember watching him eat chicken, chewing it to a pulp and then spitting the remains on to his plate because he could no longer keep his food down. ‘I’m getting t’goodness out of it,’ he would explain in the same heavy Northern accent that sometimes advised that the best way to play snooker was to ‘hit it where it shines…’.
Directly behind him in the black bow tie is my father. I’m guessing the tie was the one that he wore when he was ‘singing in the clubs’. A fact that he would proudly remind people of ad nauseum. How I loved and hated and loved and hated and loved and hated my father. He was a source of pride and terror to me; something I’ve never really gotten over. He was an autodidact, a working class hero, an abused child, a Labour councillor, a bully, a sloth, semi-alcoholic. A mass of contradictions that even he didn’t understand. He didn’t understand me either, and probably didn’t even try to.
In the picture he looks handsome and content. When he died last year he was apparently in the running to become mayor of Weston-Super-Mare. For a control freak like him this missed opportunity will have been a source of frustration that he carried to his grave. We spoke maybe five or six times in the last thirty years. How I loved and hated him. How I despised him. How I respected him. How I wanted to be him.
Standing right behind the bride is his wife, My mother. She sought to protect me from my bullying father’s all too frequent ‘good hidings’ by smothering me with love. Literally choking me, squeezing the air out of my lungs with love. For this reason it’s difficult to determine if she’s looking at the bride or actually craning her neck to stare over at me and check that I am all right. She looks pretty in the picture, I think. I like the beehive and remember the choking odour of cheap hairspray that used to saturate the house. When I was a kid I used to think that she was the most beautiful woman in the world. Prettier than Elizabeth Taylor, sexier than Wilma Flintstone.
Towering over George Wright and my mother is Uncle Ken. He was a former Royal Guardsman and stood something like 6’ 4” in an age when 5’ 11” was considered tall. When he left the guards he worked on the trains; sometimes I would be playing football at the end of my grandmother’s street and see the train go by, him standing filthy-dirty in a heap of coal, shovelling it into the burner. When he wasn’t doing this he was drinking. And when he wasn’t drinking he was beating up Auntie Shirley.
If you look over to the right, that’s Auntie Shirley. She dressed as a bridesmaid and even though the photo is old and grainy you can see those teeth of hers that were always her defining feature. She was a naughty girl, was Auntie Shirley, and always mine and probably everybody else’s favourite. Running away to London at 18. Married to her handsome guardsman soon afterwards. Four kids. Lots of laughs. And lots of bruises. I particularly remember the bruises. The black eyes. The split lips. And I recall with crystal clarity the abject poverty that even we were shocked at when we went to her terraced house when I was a kid.
I also remember her kindness: of how I called around unexpectedly in the late-70s and when I said I liked the record she was playing she took it off the turntable and gave it to me without batting an eyelid. She didn’t have much but what she did have she was happy to give away.
And I remember the last time I saw her: about five or six years ago when I visited Burnley and she was in the latter stages of leukaemia. Of how I crept into her bedroom and held the fragile yellow hand of the jaundiced body that lay motionless on the bed. And of my cowardice later when I avoided seeing her again one last time because it was simply too hard for me to take. I wasn’t strong enough or brave enough to provide her with the comfort that she probably – most definitely – needed.
She’s glowing in the picture, though. Young and cheeky and effervescent and toothy, which is how I’ll always remember her.
To the right of Auntie Shirley is my grandmother. She was a former bus-conductress who fractured her pelvis in a road accident in the 1960s and never worked again. People used to say that she looked like the Queen, and if you hold this picture up against a £20 note you will probably get what they were talking about. She’s even wearing a coat like the Queen’s and holding her handbag in the same manner.
Some said she had Spanish blood in her, others that she was Jewish. Although in truth I can’t even remember where I got that information from, or indeed if I’ve simply made it up. What I do remember, however, is her love for me. And the oasis of safety that she provided for me as a child. I remember her dog, Sheeba; I remember the ornaments on the mantlepiece that used to fascinate me, I remember the bowl of fruit on the window ledge that seemed to be eternally self replenishing.
And her kindness was not only limited to me: when she learned that Uncle Ken’s violence also extended to his children, she took in the eldest, a girl named Lynette, my cousin, and legally adopted her. She brought Lynette up, gave her opportunities that she would surely never have had if she had stayed with Auntie Shirley.
I remember when George Wright died and my grandmother took Lynette and I on a tour of Europe, not wanting to waste the ticket she had previously purchased for her recently deceased husband. And I recall sitting with her in a Dutch bar listening to her explain that the last time she had visited they had played ‘Delilah’ by Tom Jones, a song that George loved. Of course, naturally, inevitably, the song stuck up again the very next instant and I was left to comfort my grieving grandmother in the awkward, clumsy way that only a fourteen-year-old boy can.
Eventually Lynette left home to join the army and years later paid a surprise visit to her adopted-mother-cum-actual-grandmother. And this is what killed our grandmother, who was so shocked to see her darling Lynette turn up expectedly that she had a massive heart attack and tragically died instantly.
These are the people whom I know and remember in this photograph but there are others faces that I dimly recognise. Is that Auntie Florrie standing to the left of Shirley? The little old lady who was actually my great-grandmother, the woman whose house was adorned with home-made rag carpets and who kept a commode in her bedroom? Is that Uncle Jordie on the far left? Auntie Florrie’s quietly spoken husband who worked down the pit and painted exquisite toy soldiers as a hobby? I don’t know but I’m sure my mother will tell me. The woman who has just messaged me while I was writing this to tell me what a ‘bonny little lad’ I was.
Not so bonny any more. Not so bonny…