WHAT YOU DONE TO YOUR HAND JOHN?

My grandmother’s family had once been well to do farmers in Lingen near the Welsh border until her father took to litigation. What the nature of the legal disputes were my grandmother either did not know or would not tell me; suffice it to say that all the family’s wealth went on lawyers’ fees and they lived in reduced circumstances. Throughout my childhood she warned me on no account involve lawyers in my affairs, advice that stood me in good stead in later life.

So her very early childhood was surrounded by all the luxury available to the prosperous farming family of the 1880s but by 1886, when she was five, all these things had fallen away. The one thing that made this bearable was her mother, who was a skilled domestic manager, having been taught well by her own mother.

Using the produce of the smallholding where they now lived and advanced coping skills she was able to maintain a condition of not too shabby gentility. In my grandmother’s eyes the chief of these skills was her mother’s magical way with sugar. Though an expensive commodity she used it wisely, making toffee that was renowned in the market towns of Presteigne and Kington. Much of it went to be sold but her mother was careful that there was always a little bit left for little Edith, a small piece to suck after church, something that the other children of the village did not have.

But Edith’s chief delight was in the jams made from the fruit the farm produced and the queen of these was the strawberry jam that was made in the high summer of every year. On bread or in puddings it was the thing that never failed to make Edith happy, whatever school or her father’s moods might throw at her.

In March 1889, when Edith was eight, her father announced one morning over the breakfast table that Cousin John was coming to stay. This was a big event. He was the son of her father’s youngest brother, who had gone to London to seek his fortune. He might not have made a fortune but he had prospered and now his only son, John, held the responsible post of clerk in the City of London. So the visit was momentous, a link with the respectability that should have been theirs.

As far as Edith was concerned the impending state visit was a bore. The normally calm household was thrown into chaos as everything was done to ensure Cousin John’s comfort and that there was nothing that might make him think that this was not a house of gentility. She was exiled from her bedroom so that it could be got ready for John and forced to share her elder sister’s bed. The house was given a vicious spring clean and she was chivvied along if she wanted to read one of her books, being either in the way or better employed helping with the preparations.

When he did eventually arrive, in the trap from Kington station, he proved to be a bit of a disappointment. Tall and thin, with a remarkably pale complexion and a disconcerting habit of staring around as if everything was out to hurt him, even Edith’s mother later said that, had he been a pig, she would have put him out of his misery at birth. But still he must be entertained, even if he seemed disinclined to accept any invitation offered.

He spoke only when spoken to, which can get a little wearing in a guest. After going out with her father to look at the farm that first afternoon he never expressed any interest in going around it again, indeed he showed strong aversion to getting close to any of the animals, from the farm cats upwards. He had to be almost prised out of his room, to which he retreated at any opportunity.

For the first couple of days, when Edith’s mother realised he was absent, she would go up and encourage him to involve himself in some non-demeaning task. Then she gave up. In the evenings, the kitchen being the only warmed room, he would be physically present but usually barricaded behind a book. Her father shook his head, how was this one a go-getter in the City?

It was only at meal times that he showed any animation. Then he tucked into the fresh farm produce with a will. Then he had no fear of speaking, if it was to ask for seconds. The family were warned to be frugal in their appetite, so that there would be enough for John to indulge his. It was a mystery to all of them where he put it, given his slender frame.

Edith, from a careful study of the store cupboard, knew that there was only one jar of strawberry jam left and that there would be no more until the summer. She had therefore been dismayed to see it on the tea table at the beginning of John’s visit and even more dismayed that John had tucked into it with the same lack of inhibition with which he had treated the other foods from the farm.

At last the week that John had dedicated to his rural holiday was drawing to an end. Tempers within the family were frayed. Her father spent an unusual amount of time out on the farm, her mother clipped ears uncharacteristically and the children bickered amongst themselves mercilessly. Only John maintained a sense of calm, uninterested on what was going on around him, his mind on a return to civilization.

The final teatime proceeded in mostly silence, talk confined to mundane events on the farm, while all of those who could count were working out that it was only fourteen more hours until John would have to be taken to the station to catch the early train.

Edith was relieved to see that there was still a quarter of the jar of strawberry jam left. There would be something salvageable from the wreckage. Her mother had made a cake so surely he would pass over the jam in favour of that.

“Would you like some cake John?” asked her mother at the appropriate point of the meal.

“No. If I may I would really like some of your delicious jam. It is one thing I will regret leaving behind.”

Taking it for granted that his wish would be granted he reached over and took hold of the jar. Edith’s face fell. She watched intently as he cut himself a thick slice of bread and then slithered it with a liberal quantity of butter. Admittedly her mother had a large jam spoon, more dessert than tea, but her family used only the front of the spoon to extract a modest amount of jam because that was manners.

Edith watched in horror as John proceeded to use the full capacity of the spoon to ladle quantities of jam onto his bread. The family watch transfixed as he scraped the last vestiges of the jam out of the jar and transfer it to the precarious heap. As he delicately raised the confection up to his mouth, the jam sparkling in the lamplight, and took a quick bite of pure jam she could stand it no longer. The words came unrehearsed to her lips. “What you done to your hand John?”

John stopped, the bread halfway between mouth and plate. He looked at the top of his hand but could see nothing wrong with it. He turned his hand over and the jam slid off the bread and into his lap.

The children erupted into peals of unabashed laughter, her father gritted his teeth in an attempt not to join in while her mother rushed to John’s aid to cover her own smile. John, clutching his napkin to his groin, was rushed to the scullery and washed down, eventually returning looking as though he had had an unfortunate accident, which only made the children laugh even louder.

Although this was a Victorian family, with firm rules, Edith was not punished for her intervention. John was duly dispatched back to London and communications between the two branches of the family became less frequent, so any material help her father might have hoped for from this richer branch never happened.

So my grandmother did not marry into gentry as her father might have hoped. Instead she was courted by a gamekeeper who had attracted her attention by throwing a snowball at her and knocking off her hat. Strangely he had only become a gamekeeper because he had become estranged from his family, cherry farmers from the Suckley area because his father had re-married and his step-mother made sure her children got the farm.

One of the results of that union, my mother, married a man from Lower Eggleton, whose family had moved from Newent after his father had fallen out with his step-mother. In this part of the world families can be a cantankerous lot. But, in my grandmother’s family and on into mine, if anyone takes a larger portion of food than they are entitled to they would be greeted by the warning, “What you done to your hand?”

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