“I thought you might like this song, dear” Nan said, as she pulled the paper sleeve off the single and put it on the big, wooden record player. The scratchy sound of needle on vinyl and Rolf Harris’ soft voice singing ‘Two little boys had two little toys’ filled the cosy Kirkcaldy tenement. I stood close to the player, listening intently to every word, picturing the sunny playroom with a rocking horse next to the window, and the two little boys in shorts and short sleeved shirts.
I was about seven years old, the age I imagined these boys to be, and staying with Nan, my mother’s childhood nanny, by myself for the first time. Nan was born in 1898, the same year as my grandfather, a fact that was very important to me as a small child. I was deeply impressed, still am, that she remembered Queen Victoria’s death, her whole community wearing mourning black and processing in the streets.
She spent her working life looking after other people’s children, and I loved her tales of the families she worked for, particularly treasuring her stories of my mother’s childhood. She was retired by the time I came along, but a beloved member of our family, and she would come down on the train from Kirkcaldy to spend long precious weeks with us in London.
She was kind, gentle and patient, reading Babar the Elephant and Alice in Wonderland for hours at a time, while I snuggled on her capacious, lap clad in sensible M&S skirt and cosy cardi with pearly buttons. She taught me how to play draughts, then never once complained as I challenged her to game after game after game. She showed me how to knit, a skill I’ve now sadly forgotten, but I’ll never forget her nimble fingers, with their dry, papery skin, moving in a blur as her needles click clacked another yellow baby jacket into shape.
I was so excited to stay with her all by myself. I met Nan’s neighbour Margaret, played in their shared vegetable garden, had a bath in a bucket in front of the electric fire and went out for tea in the Blue Cockatoo café. I can’t remember what it was like, but the exotic name has stuck with me. I slept in a day bed in an alcove in the living room. Nan sat with me while I fell asleep, stroking my hair, before retiring to her bedroom with felt, Sunday best, hats in the wardrobe.
We spent a lot of time in her cosy sitting room full of photos and trinkets, gifts and memories. I looked at albums as Nan told me stories about the ornaments on the tiled mantlepiece, presents from her charges and their children. And we listened to ‘Two Little Boys’ again and again. Every time the song reached it’s climax and Rolf sang ‘Did you think I would leave you dying, when there’s room on my horse for two?’ my throat would tighten as my emotional seven year old self thought about losing the people I loved.
Happily, Nan lived until the ripe old age of 94, so we had many more years together. But I still can’t listen to that song without being transported back to a sunny afternoon in a Kirkcaldy tenement.
This post was written in response to Laura from ‘Are We Nearly There Yet Mummy?’ who asked me what my favourite song is.