Mrs. Higgins lived with her legless brother and her blind husband in a tall, narrow old house in Nottingham. The room I rented from her in the 1950s was just below her sitting room, where she kept a life-size portrait of Lenin. She embraced Communism with the same uncritical enthusiasm with which she welcomed her lodgers. Every Thursday night she hosted a meeting of the local Communist society, and in my room below I would hear the stamp of feet and the muffled chorus of some rousing song. At Christmas, Mrs. Higgins sent me a card with a procession of skeletons marching across the front, carrying a black coffin with the word capitalism painted on it. The message beneath read: Happy Christmas!
Mrs. Higgins’ brother Fred had lost his legs in the war. He had two artificial ones that he hated wearing, so at home he went swinging about on his stumps. At night I would feel my way up the winding, windowless staircase, and I never got used to meeting Fred’s legless torso thumping his way down from step to step for a late-night cup of cocoa.
The kitchen was a dark, gloomy cavern in the basement. The only light came from a dangling bulb in a plum-coloured shade, heavy with tassels, which swung slowly back and forth over the table, sending grotesque shadows into the corners of the room. Here Mrs. Higgins’ blind husband spent most of his days in the company of the family cat, a large tabby. Mr. Higgins would sit at the table eating his meals out of a large roasting pan, while the tabby sat at his elbow, daintily licking from the same pan. It was Mrs. Higgins’ habit, after she’d made a good fry-up—a daily occurrence—to put the greasy skillet on the floor for the tabby to lick clean. Then the skillet would go back on the stove for the next meal. I tried not to visit the kitchen too often, and when I did, I was thankful for the dim lighting.
Mrs. Higgins loved to make ginger beer. She produced vast quantities of it, and because the house was short of storage space, she kept most of it on a long row of shelves under the window in my room. Unfortunately she hadn’t got the corking procedure down quite right, and every so often I would fly out of bed at what sounded like rifle shots as the bottles exploded, one after another. This added considerably to the suspense of my amorous evenings with my boyfriend, who became more jittery every time his attempt at sex was met by a hail of gunfire.
But everything is relative, as I realized when I began to spend vacations in Glasgow with my grandmother. She was a dour Scot who believed that life was grim, and that whatever you did, the important thing was not to enjoy it. Fortunately, when visiting her, that was not difficult.
The only warm room in the house was the kitchen. A vast cast-iron stove almost covered one wall and some hellish brew was always bubbling over the fire. Usually it was boiled mutton, a big vat of greasy grey water with fatty lumps of sheep floating on the surface. Nothing else—no onions, no carrots, not even salt and pepper. It was served in vast white soup dishes. The experience of forcing it down was not for the faint of heart. Hanging on the wall above the kitchen table as we ate was a murky painting of some Highland cattle, doomed forever to huddle together shivering in some frigid gale.
After a week at my grandmother’s house, I couldn’t wait to return to the genial Mrs. Higgins’ boarding house—legless torsos, chorusing Communists, exploding ginger beer and all.