My mum’s Auntie Nora and her husband, Uncle Ben, really, really loved each other. However, their deep and enduring mutual affection might not have been immediately obvious to anyone just listening in.
I called round once, unexpectedly, just after noon. Uncle Ben greeted me. Auntie Nora was in bed with one of her heads. We all knew about Auntie Nora’s heads and they were nothing to do with hangovers and everything to do with her being a worrier.
Uncle Ben shouted up from the bottom of the stairs.
“Nora? How are you?”
“How do you think I am? I’m dying!”
“Well, hurry up and die quietly!” Uncle Ben grinned and winked at me as he shouted this.
(A muffled groan from the front bedroom).
“You don’t care…”
“Why didn’t you tell me, you daft devil?”
A minute later, Auntie Nora, wrapped in her pink towelling dressing gown, was downstairs, purse in hand, despatching Uncle Ben to the corner shop to “get some cream cakes.”
These three elements seemed to me to characterise Auntie Nora and Uncle Ben as a couple: worry, brutal but loving banter, and cream cakes.
Uncle Ben was tall. He served in the Coldstream guards during World War Two. Towards the end of the war, he brought home a trophy – a Nazi flag – which Auntie Nora decided to use as a tablecloth. This might seem a strange choice, but it was all to do with her being a worrier. No matter that the war seemed to be going well, this might all be propaganda. In her mind, storm troopers could arrive at any moment, goose-stepping through Bolton town centre and along her very own street. The Nazi flag was her insurance policy, her way of trying to protect her extended family (which would have included my mum) from being lined up against a wall and shot.
Having the flag to hand meant that, as the Germans came marching down her street, she could whip it off the kitchen table, run upstairs, and hang it out of the bedroom window (thereby making the conquering army feel welcomed). For those who feel this was less than patriotic, I ought to stress that Auntie Nora was no Nazi-sympathiser. She was never going to BE on the Nazis’ side, she just needed them to THINK she was on their side, in order to protect those she loved from a ruthless enemy.
Her other coping mechanism at this worrying time, was to bake cakes and send them off to Uncle Ben at the front. These were intended to boost his morale and keep his strength up. When the war was over and he was demobbed and home for good, she asked him if he’d enjoyed the cakes.
“They took six months to reach me,” he told her. “By the time they arrived they were that hard we loaded ‘em up and fired ‘em at the bloody Gerries. Why do you think they surrendered?”
Love moves in mysterious ways.