When I was young we would travel most weeks from Evesham to Halesowen to visit my Nan, who always seemed old, and to my Aunty Win and Uncle Wes.
Sometimes my dad and I would drive or walk to meet Uncle Wes when he came out of work. I remember, almost as an echo now, something maybe half remembered, half seen in old black and white film, a siren, and then gates opening and men walking out. As they walked out they kicked their boots and stamped and a pile of red dust would build up, sand from the pattern makers, black coal dust too. My uncle worked in a foundry.
I remember that we waited in the best room while he washed in front of the fire in winter. They didn’t have a bath room in the house until I was in my teens, but would bathe in a tin bath in front of the fire.
Aunty Win would cook supper and keep Uncle Wes in good order. She was never idle, always working around the house. When she sat her hands were always busy with knitting. She could knit an aran sweater in a week, all the time chatting away, or watching Coronation Street or Crossroads on television.
One of the reasons I found the courage to become an artist was through watching my Uncle Wes. He took great pride in everything he did, his work, his garden, in his son. He and Winnie seemed so much to be a couple that I couldn’t imagine them apart. And they both loved me and my sister so much. But I watched as I grew and I saw how the work wore him away. A great giant of a man, with hands like shovels. He was only 63 when he became ill. 63 seemed old to me then. Lung cancer ate away at him, a cancer that must have come from the coal that he worked with. I watched him die and I decided that if I was going to spend my life working then it would be doing something I loved because life was too short. I was so angry when he died. So angry. With him, with the world for taking him away.
Over the last few days I learnt some things about Aunty Win that I didn’t know before. It seemed my dad fist met her when Wes brought her home when my dad was only 9. He was the baby of the family, Wes was 18 years older than him. When Win and Wes married they lived with Aunty Win’s mum at first. Her sister lived in the front room of the house with their child, Enid. Aunt Win and Uncle Wes had one of the other rooms. This is how people lived in those days.
Aunty Win lived many years after Uncle Wes had died. I used to go and stay with her when I was still at school, even a few times when I was at college. She gave up knitting eventually when the weight of the wool became too much for her athritic hands to hold. She taught me how to make a whisky mac. She always insisted that we put the electric blanket on before going to bed. And when I was an art student she let me raid her wardrobe for suede coats. Sometimes I would go with her to the offices that she cleaned, and wander through the strange territory of office life when all the workers were home, with the ‘invisible ones’, the cleaners, polishing desks, emptying bins. It was an eerie world. In the evenings we would sit and talk. For a while she had a cat ( something Wes would not have tolerated. He was a gardener and hated cats) There were often visitors, always a cup of tea to be had. I never heard her say a bad word against anyone, and yet somehow she never suffered fools. She was often in pain, but always if you asked her how she was she would smile and say she was ok.
My dad read the eulogy at Aunty Win’s funeral on Tuesday. I loved how his voice cracked at times. He loved them both very much I think. When he told me that Winnie had died one of the things he said was that her and Wes were together again at last. Such a long time she lived without him.
My sister read from the Bible. We used to fight over Aunt Win when we were little, over who’s Godmother she was. Now neither of us can remember, both of us claim her, even our mum and dad can’t remember, so I guess she was both of ours.
Both Uncle Wes and Aunty Win loved me and my sister so much, and were so proud of us both. So many things remind me of my uncle. Pigeons, blackberries, walking in the park in Evesham, onions, beans seeds. He always carried beans in his pockets like beads. His hands that were often marked like a drawing with the dark coal dust patterning the contours. Such big hands, holding my small, smooth child’s hand. His shed that was magic, full of tools and seeds and string and packets. And Aunty Win, who was so urban that I couldn’t understand it. She lived and died within a small area and would give you nothing for the countryside but loved the streets and houses of the town, loved to shop, loved to pick up a bargain.
She was a small woman who married a giant of a man, and for me she leaves a great big hole in the world, but I cannot be sad for her. 93 years is a long time to live. I think Aunty Win’s death opened up the grief I had locked away when Wes died.
I will remember her smiling and shaking her head at my nonsense with a rich warm twinkle in her beautiful eyes. She was the rarest of people. And I will be glad for them, that they are together again.