They met when they were teenagers.

On fire watch, when incendiary bombs rained flames over the school roof, they spent the nights playing games and eating black market biscuits.

That was in the war. Back then she was graceful and quick witted. Back then he was sharp and handsome.

“She was a looker even then,” he said. “I fancied her but we weren’t courtin’.”

National service and nursing training meant separate ways for a while. A few years later they met again. At a dance, down Roker, he saw her. He was with his mates, and a girl called Robson on his arm.
“I saw her. She was dancing with this lad, he was a hunch back mind but he could dance. I got me mates all lined round the room and every time he went to ask her they buzzed him off.”
“Buzzed him off?”
“Aye, you know, cut in,” He explained. “So in the end she had to dance with me. She was a good dancer too.”
They danced ‘til the band finished playing. He walked her home, across the river, five mile out the wrong way. That was the start of it. They courted and eventually married. He never said what happened to Robson.

He taught me to dance as a child; foxtrot, waltz, quickstep. I don’t remember her dancing at all. I barely remember her walking or moving from her sitting room chair. I wish I’d known them both before age, illness and the inevitable grind of life shrunk them down. An impossible wish.

Old memories are patchy, misleadingly highlighted with photographs and over-told exaggerated tales. An unreliable slide show of family mythology. Mostly I am left to wonder.

I imagine her as a young woman; smart, athletic, stylish. Her hair perfectly arranged in her trademark coiffure. Her waist was, as she said frequently, a mere 21 inches then. Wearing a beautifully tailored dress which spun out as he twirled her around the dance floor. She would have laughed at his charming and ever-so-silly stories. One marriage, four children, seven grandchildren and a great grandchild later, he still tells those stories. I’ll never know if they are true or not.

They had a long run, a whole lifetime of stories, and some are now lost forever. Theirs is story of a boy and a girl in the blackout, and of dancing and family and love.

A team of two for seventy four years.
Married for most of it.
Argued for some of it.
Loved for all of it.

It’s unimaginable to have one without the other.

Fig Rolls

Grandma has a spare room, upstairs at the back of the house. It is filled with sixty years worth of children’s toys.

There have always been children in this house. It’s usually brimming with life, noise, laughter, warmth and banana sandwiches. It even smells of family.

Between the pint-sized plastic kitchen and the zoo of stuffed animals are boxes containing photographs. A few thousand six by four inch glossy paper memories. They document every year of my life. Every year of my father’s life.

When I visit we sometimes take a box down and sit at the dining table to look at them. She reminds me of birthday parties, summers in the garden with Grandpa and the names of a dozen second cousins not seen for years.

“Do you remember when Jessie and Bobbie came over from Canada?”

I nod and smile. I should remember, I was thirteen, but she has shown me the photo’s before and they are the sum total of my recollection.

There is so much I don’t remember.

She shows me a smiling family group stood outside their old house, a modern 60’s build of five bedrooms. It had the luxury of a garage and sliding patio doors; dangerous for little fingers. My vague memory of it involves a huge dark brown building, formidable and scary. In the photo it is bright and sunny and new. It’s always sunny in these photographs. They’re always smiling trademark toothy grins; my dental heritage caught on camera. They look happy. They weren’t. Not that I remember.

In the lounge, religious effigies vie for wall space with a hundred framed faces. Her blue eyed boys, her blonde haired girls and a plethora of chubby, fresh faced grandchildren. She repeats the same stories every time about cousins overseas and a grandchild who’s so advanced, so smart.

She talks about “Yer Dad”, my father, with an edge in her voice. He is not a natural family man. It took half a century for him to settle down with just one woman.

“But they all have their flaws,” she says.

Her boys, made in her late husband’s image; charmers, tellers of stories, gamblers, drinkers, men of lapsed faith and lapsed faithfulness.  These things go unmentioned, accepted because it’s too late to change. Accepted because she loves them all, unconditionally.

The tea dregs are cold. The stories are done for the day. She hands me some of the photographs to keep. As I leave she pushes a twenty into my hand,

“’Ere yar, Sarah. I don’t get to see yer often enough”

I try to refuse the bribe. It’s her pension. And what about the other eleven, or is it twelve grandchildren?

She insists,

“No spendin’ it on drinkin’ and smokin’ mind.”

“Grandma, I don’t smoke. I‘ve never smoked.”

I hug her on the doorstep. As she closes the door I finally recognise the scent; biscuits, fig rolls to be precise. It’s the smell of childhood.