In the summer, when the weather was good, we walked to church. Daddy would be in his suit and tie, wearing a trilby hat, which he would remove as we crossed the threshold of the church.My four sisters and I would be in our best dresses. The twins, at twelve two years older than me, usually had identical ones, with perhaps a different colored cardigan each, blue for Jane, and green for Kay.
I would be in the dress my Polish godmother had sewn for me – a greyish green with a small black-and-white print on it. The belt was attached at the sides, so that I wouldn’t lose it, and tied in a bow at the back. It had a detachable white collar, because my godmother knew I’d be sure to get it dirty, so she made it easier for my mother to wash. I guess the color of the dress, normally too sophisticated for a ten-year-old, might have been chosen to hide the evidence of my generally messy way of navigating my world.
Alex and Susan wore dresses that differed only in size. My mother had sewn them from a kit she sent away for from a women’s magazine. They arrived with the fabric already cut out, one with yellow flowers (for Susan, aged four) and one with blue ones, (for six-year-old Alex). The kit included contrasting rick-rack to be sewn around the skirt and neckline for added interest.
We all wore white socks and our current shoes, having, of course, only one pair each. Daddy would have polished them the day before, having been shooed out of the kitchen by my mother. On the step by the kitchen door, he’d line up our shoes by size, before opening the old biscuit tin where he kept the brushes, polish and buffing rags. He would spit thoughtfully on the toe of each shoe as he brushed the polish in.
“Spit and polish,” he would say. “That’s what they do in the army to make them shine.”
Fourteen years after the war, the leather belt hanging in the wardrobe with his uniform still had that spit and polish gleam.
Our hair brushed, we’d be ready. My mother, a half apron around her waist, would wave us goodbye, promising roast chicken for lunch on our return. She wasn’t a Catholic, but I think the reason she stayed home was because she relished a couple of hours of peace and quiet.
Our route took us past the other large houses on our quiet street. Too quiet, in my 10-year-old opinion. There weren’t enough other children to play with, which meant I had to make do with my sisters, who wouldn’t always cooperate.
On weekdays, the passing traffic might include the butcher or baker delivering their goods from large flat baskets to our front door. Occasionally, in addition to the large family loaf we took as a matter of course, my mother would succumb to the temptations of the iced buns, sticky in pink or white, buying three which she would cut in half for us to share.
The man who sharpened knives or the blind man who could re-weave the cane on our chairs might come knocking. On a really exciting day, the rag and bone man, his open wagon pulled by a slow clip-clopping horse, might come along the road, shouting out his trade. Housewives would emerge from behind their very proper front doors, with old clothing or useless household items, for which he’d hand over a goldfish. When the first goldfish died after only two days, my mother refused to take another, and held out for a pinwheel on a stick or a balloon.
Occasionally, the onion man from Brittany would arrive on his bike, with twenty or more long strings of onions draped over the handlebars. My mother always bought some, because she enjoyed chatting with him in fluent French. He wore a black beret, no matter the weather. I think he knew the British expected real Frenchmen always to wear a beret.
So much for the Monday to Friday excitements. On Sundays, men who didn’t go to church would be washing their cars in the driveway as we passed. They used a chamois to make the glass sparkle, and wax to give the body a shine better than that of their neighbors.
We’d reach the end of the road and turn right down the avenue, lined with giant horse chestnut trees which kept the road cool when the weather was hot. This was the way to Gunnersbury Park, the best part of the walk. Through the enormous wrought iron gates, and we’d pass the white mansion that once belonged to the Rothschilds and now housed the local museum. Inside it, we knew, were the grand carriages with crests on the doors. Facing them stood the biggest doll’s house we’d ever seen, crammed with tiny Victorian furniture and inhabited by a family of small dolls and their maid. Then there was the fossilized wooden tree trunk that had served as a pipeline for the ancient Romans who’d lived in the neighborhood nearly 2000 years before. But a visit to the museum would have to wait for another time.
Today we’d cross the lawn where the Rothschilds had played croquet with their friends. And here was the ruin they called a folly. My mother had told me that follies were the fashion long ago and people had paid architects to design them. Even at ten, I knew that was silly. And what was the point of ruins if we weren’t allowed to climb them?
Out through one of the side gates, which were spaced at regular intervals along the great yellow brick walls which ran around the vast park. The gate had originally been for the gardeners to come and go, as they invisibly maintained the flower and vegetable gardens and the gardenias in the orangery attached to the house.
Now we were walking along the main road, with only a quarter of a mile to go. It might as well have been ten miles, and we would begin to flag, even though Daddy tried to chivvy us along. He’d pick Susan up, as he always did, since her little legs were tired, and we’d all welcome the sight of St. Dunstan’s Preparatory School for Boys, silent on a Sunday, and next to it a small, ugly building, the church. I never did find out who Saint Dunstan was.
Daddy would give each of us a penny or ha’penny to put into the collection plate and then it was time to go in. It was cool and dark inside, though on a sunny day you could see the haze of incense smoke, drifting through as the mass progressed. I liked the spicy smell, and used it as a marker to tell me the service was almost over. I kept one eye on my sisters (Susan would disappear from time to time below the wooden bench) and one eye on the black missal I held in front of me, where the order of service was written in both English and Latin. The priest prayed in the mysterious language the Romans used, and by the time I was eight, I was able to hear a Catholic service, understand it, and utter the correct Latin responses without a second thought. When the mass was translated into English, sometime in the mid-60’s, it lost its mystery for me, no longer the murmurings of an exotic secret society, but the meaningless repetition of phrases I no longer believed.
But while Daddy was alive, and the sun was shining and the park was green, walking to church was a chance to be with him, with the feeling that life was good and would stay that way.