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My Nana

"Oh, there's plenty of time for sleep when you're laid out", she'd say.


My Nana had a very hard life. She had only one child, and that was my mother. Her husband (my Granda) was a seaman and he was only in middle age when he became ill. I don’t know exactly what was wrong with him, but the doctor ordered him to bed indefinitely. My mother said it was dropsy and if he ever stood on his feet the water would reach his heart and kill him. So I only ever saw him in bed; he had a tache and looked old to me.

My Nana had to support them both. To earn money she used to sell fish. Every morning, very early, she would go down to North Shields Fish Quay, where the fish was being sold to buyers from all over the country. She would wait until the auction was over and then take her pick of what was left; the leftovers were sold cheaper.

She had a great big basket, about three feet long with a handle at each end; it was very deep too. Somedays, the basket was full of various kinds of fish; the awful thing was she had to carry it on her head. She wore a circular ring of cloth, which she called a wheeze, then she had to kneel down while a couple of workers would place the basket on her head. Then she would make the journey back home, up a long flight of stairs from the Quay and so to her own home.

She still had a lot of work to do first before she could start selling. She had to sort all the fish into their different categories and fix the prices, then she had to kneel down again and somehow slide the basket herself from the table onto her head. What a terrible life she had walking round the street with a ton weight on her head, calling out to sell her fish. Of course, she became a well-known figure; she was known as ‘Meggie the Fishwife’. She had regular customers who she could rely on, but she had an awful job getting her money in from some of them.

Nearly all her fish was sold on tick. She would jot their name down and how much they owed her, then on Friday nights she would go from door to door with her notebook and a vine (that was her name for a pencil). She never collected all her money, some would ask her to call back next week because they were hard up, some of them wouldn’t answer the door and she knew they were in. Many a day she was out of pocket.

There were days when she didn’t sell much at all, and after toiling all day she had to practically give her fish away free as she had no way of keeping it fresh. It was a hard, backbreaking job and of course she was looking after a sick man too, but in spite of the hardship she never complained much. She was a very kind-hearted woman who would share her last crust with anyone.

Every Monday she would come round to our house with a sandwich for each of us, even though she could ill afford it. One sandwich always had a little bit more filling than the rest. This one was for my brother Edward, her golden boy she called him. I think maybe this was because when my mother was in labour no one had any idea that she was about to have twins. The first baby came out and the midwife was washing it when my Nana realised my mother was still in great pain, then she shouted, “good Lord, there’s another one coming” and that was Edward, so I think that’s how she felt a special bond with him.

I was about seven or eight when my Granda died. He was laid out on a trestle in the kitchen, which was the custom then. I remember staring at him in his coffin, I had never seen a dead person before, so I touched his brow to see what it felt like and it was cold and clammy.

I loved my Nana very much, she was only in her late fifties but she looked very old. She was dressed in the style of her day, a full dark heavy skirt which reached her feet, with two or three petticoats underneath. She wore lots of clothes on the top then a shawl wrapped round her shoulders which was crossed at the front and tied at the back, just the way fisher-women of old were dressed. I remember her twinkling blue eyes and her sense of humour, whenever she heard music she wanted to dance. She enjoyed a glass of beer at night and after Granda died I sometimes used to stay at her house overnight to keep her company. I used to go for her beer, with a jug and some coppers. I would go to the brewery which was at the top of Kings Street on the corner of Albion Road. I would get a gill (that’s half a pint or ten fluid ounces) of beer for tuppence. They still served me even though I was a little girl.

When I got back the table would be laid with bread and cheese and a glass of lemonade for me. After supper she would settle back in her chair while I read the newspaper out loud to her; the Evening News came out every night and cost a penny. She liked the sensational news, especially the murder cases, then I had to turn to the obituary page and read out the deaths. If no-one she knew had died that day, she would be quite disappointed “what a disgrace” she would say “nobody’s died, I’ve wasted a penny”. She never wanted to go to bed; she liked to sit up half the night talking, she was a proper night owl. “Oh, there’s plenty of time for sleep when you’re laid out”, she’d say. She was really funny and when she died a few years later I was heartbroken.

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