My mother’s mother was Irish to her core. England was not really the place for the Irish at the time, so she learnt to speak with a terribly clipped English accent. She sounded like Celia Johnson.
My grandfather was an aeronautical engineer, often covered in grease, and between him, my tomboy mother and her two younger brothers, my grandmother faced mountains of laundry all her life. The children would go out for long walks in the countryside from morning until night, and come home covered in a fine layer of grit.
She never had a washing machine. Or a freezer. Every day, she’d go shopping and cook meals from scratch, she’d wash the clothes on a washboard, crank them through a mangle, and press them with an iron which was suspended over an open fire in the kitchen. She had work that I can barely imagine. I don’t know I’m born.
Many years ago, when my mother was young, she trained to be a nurse at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London. At the time, her two brothers were still at home. Craig would have been around sixteen years old, and Jeremy was ten. Having a decent age gap between the two older ones and the baby, Jeremy developed a great imagination because his brother and sister didn’t want to play with him, being positively middle-aged when he was born. They were six and seven.
Back to Jeremy, ten years old: It was still the 1950s, and the world was simpler. I know this because my uncle Craig had a gun. I am certain that he never shot at anything with a pulse, he’s too polite for that. I suspect he used the gun for target practise and just shot at cans. Craig’s the most diplomatic, inoffensive chap in the world, so I can’t see him shooting anything living.
One day, Jeremy was playing at being the Lone Ranger, and running around the house. He happened upon Craig’s gun on the bed. Deciding that it would be much better to play with a real prop than use his brain completely, Jeremy took the gun, and started pretend-firing at imaginary baddies.
And then his finger slipped. The poor lad got the shock of his life when he squeezed the trigger, and an almighty bang resonated through the hallway; his face fell limply as a large hole appeared in the kitchen door. He missed his mother, leaning over the hob, stewing something, by about an inch.
When Craig returned from a day of rambling, he couldn’t imagine the trouble he was in. After all, he’d provided the means for an accidental, almost-matricide.
The biggest problem was that there was a massive hole in the kitchen door, and the boys only had limited sundries with which to fill it. Jeremy had made a start, using balsa wood, cork, glue and string. Craig tried to get it all fixed before their father got home.
Of course, it was the first thing he noticed. They tried to mollify the damage done to the door by explaining that my grandmother could have been killed. My grandfather wasn’t impressed. They’d made a hell of a mess of that door.
With both my mother and grandmother being in the medical profession, it seemed somewhat inevitable that I too would lean that way. Sadly, my face betrays me at every turn. No matter how calming my words can be, how carefully spoken or positive in character, my face expresses everything with vomity wrinkles and terminal eyebrows.
I used to be an electrician, and part of my course was in first aid. Its importance is obvious. There are many hazards in electricity even when you know what you’re doing. At that point, we didn’t know what we were doing. Emergency First Aid was the first section of the course.
There’s a dummy they bring out. Depending on your geographical location, she goes by many names. Our trainer told us that, upon discovering a casualty, the most important thing was to assess the situation; to make sure there were no hazards that would create a danger for ourselves, as life savers, borderline saints.
Next, we were to address the casualty. If they had lost consciousness, there was the chance they might simply wake up. They might not actually need medical attention. Just talking to the casualty might not rouse them. Upon being certain that we weren’t in immediate danger ourselves, we were to hold the casualty’s shoulders, give them a little shuffle (not enough to move them, just to try and bring them round) and call out to them.
And this was what we had to do in the class. It was no good to simply say, “Hello? Are you alright, there?” No, no. We had to yell it. Loudly enough to make the plumbers on the next floor think we’d lost our minds.
I was at the end of the queue. Large, hairy-shouldered men went ahead of me, knelt down, and shook the dummy (which looks oddly euphemistic, written down). They called out to her, imploring this inanimate piece of plastic to wake up. Nothing doing. I reached the head of the queue. I held her shoulders, gave them a little shake, and her head fell off.
I think we lost her.