Saturday, September 06, 2003

Grandma Trotsky's Mandolin

Until a few years ago I used to think that I grew up in an ordinary neighbourhood and that my family and I were ordinary people. I lost this illusion quite by accident.

It was on the last of three overseas trips I took with my ex. The first was to New Zealand which really only counts as overseas because it's separated from the Australian mainland and, unlike Tasmania, you need to get a passport before you go there. As we all know, New Zealand has produced our best Australian actors, film directors and films or, at least, the ones who win Oscars.

Our second overseas trip included a visit to Manchester, the city where I was born. The ex was there to visit, and consult with, a Mancunian academic she had met at a conference. They had similar research interests. I was there to do that silly emigrant thing of revisiting your roots. For some reason it's considered am important rite of passage to go back to that secret place that only you and around fifty other neighbourhood kids knew about, and discover that Tesco's have built a supermarket over it.

The ex's visit with her Mancunian colleague, Steve, was cancelled the day we arrived; his wife went into hospital to deliver a baby. We had known that this was possible; the Manchester visit was slipped in as an opportunistic stopover between New York and Nice. Steve did insist that he would take us out for dinner the first night he could make a chance. When the night came he suggested that we go down to "Curry Mile" for an Indian meal and arranged a time to pick us up at our hotel.

We'd already discovered Curry Mile for ourselves. It was a stretch of street a few bus-stops away from our hotel, with Indian restaurants on both sides. In Manchester, as in most of England, if you're looking for an affordable meal, you either go to one of those roadhouse cafes where everything - including the desserts - comes with spam, or you go to an Indian restaurant. We went to Curry Mile on the first night of our hotel stay, after the hostess told us they didn't do dinners, "only breakfast for the guests and lunches, love. The 'Happy Chef' up the road might be open or you can try Curry Mile if you like Indian."

We liked the idea of a second visit to Curry Mile, with the benefit of Steve's local knowledge. The only other restaurant we'd found in Manchester was a rather pricey, and totally inauthentic, Italian place, which would have been pushed to give Pasta Plus any competition.

Steve's route to the restaurant was a circuitous one, which included a quick tour of Manchester's city centre, the Manchester Ship Canal and other local landmarks. Steve provided an informative historical commentary on each of the locations we visited. It was obvious that if he paid us a return visit to Melbourne, I would be hard put to match it, especially when it came down to putting dates to major events associated with the landmarks. Steve was very proud of his home town.

Thanks to our previous visit to Curry Mile, I wasn't fazed by the Mancunian accents of the staff at the restaurant Steve had chosen. It wasn't the same one we'd visited ourselves, it was a little more up-market. Besides that, I was glad not to go back to the place where I'd nearly made an ass of myself when the waiter, of very obviously Indian descent, saw me reading the drinks list and asked "Would'st like a lager wi' y'r curry, then?"

Naturally enough, the fact that I had lived in Manchester until I was ten came up in the conversation. I asked Steve what had happened to Belle Vue, the amusement park Dad and Mam had taken us kids to a couple of times. Both visits were at Christmas for the circus and the fireworks display which followed it. I'd seen buses with Belle Vue as their destination, but the park wasn't shown on my map of Manchester and Districts. Long demolished and built over with houses, Steve told me.

Steve asked whereabouts in Manchester I'd lived; when I answered, he said, with typical Mancunian tact: "So, you're from the slums then." I was shocked and hurt. Obviously it showed, because there was one of those awkward silences before Steve picked up the brick he had inadvertently dropped by remarking "I can understand why your parents decided to go to Australia." And, probably for the first time in my life, I really started to understand it myself.

If my parents hadn't taken the ten pound assisted passage, I would have found out much earlier that I was growing up in a slum. This may have proved character building but I think the resulting character would be even less likeable than the one I've acquired through living the soft life here in Australia. I wasn't privy to any of the discussions between my parents and our adult relatives over their decision to emigrate, but I find it difficult to imagine that anyone urged them to stay on the grounds that growing up in the arse end of Manchester would be character building for us Trotsky kids. My parents saw an opportunity to make a better life for us all and, very sensibly, took it.

The afternoon of the last Saturday before we set off for London, where we would catch our aeroplane to the Land Down Under, Dad took my brother and sister to the local park, for one last chance to play in the playground there, and to feed the ducks. He took along his Russian 8mm camera to get some footage for his home movie collection. I couldn't go; I had finally caught the chicken pox that someone them had brought home from school the week before so I spent the afternoon with Grandma Trotsky instead. I can't remember if she asked me to "Give us a tune on't piano lad," but I suspect she may have. It might be a long time, if ever, before she got another chance.

I'm not sure where the piano came from; I haven't heard another like it since, except perhaps on an old recording of Meade Lux Lewis playing Honky-Tonk Steam Train Blues. It's a lot better than my barrel-house version of Greensleeves ever was. The piano was an upright, of course; there was no room in Grandma Trotsky's kitchen for a Steinway grand.

The kitchen was where she and Granddad Trotsky spent most of their time at home; the front parlour was the best room, reserved for family special occasions and watching television after six o'clock. There was no point turning on the television before then; all you could get was two channels of test pattern.

Their kitchen was also their bathroom; when either of them wanted to take a bath, they used a tin bath which was stored, if memory serves, in a small cellar-come-larder off the kitchen. There was a kitchen table where Grandma would prepare their meals (or ours, when us kids were eating with them) and serve them once they were prepared. The table was also where she taught me to play patience (Klondike and Clock) and where she taught us all the game of Monopoly, using a very old set with wooden houses and hotels. Tucked between the kitchen table and the wall was Granddad Trotsky's billiard table. It had no legs; it was designed to sit on top of another table. I never saw it used; there simply wasn't enough room to wield a cue properly.

Grandma Trotsky had a lot of character building experiences in her life and occasionally she would give us a glimpse of them. Most of these glimpses I didn't understand at the time.

My early childhood was haunted by my father's older brother. When the Trotsky clan got together at Christmas, relatives would frequently remark on how much I resembled him. When I asked who he was, my mother told me that he was my father's brother who had died in the war. That closed the subject without doing anything to satisfy my curiosity.

Once, I succeeded in pestering Grandma Trotsky into showing me his medals - medals were a big deal at school and all the boys liked to boast about the medals Dad had won in World War II, or Granddad had won in World War I. As well as showing me the medals, she showed me a photograph of his grave. The grave was in France and I don't think she had ever been able to visit it; her only sight of it was in the photograph she was sent by the War Office.

There were actually five or six graves in the photograph, each with a standard headstone bearing RAF insignia. One headstone for each member of the crew of the Lancaster bomber on which my uncle had been tail-gunner. He was a sergeant in the RAF; all tail-gunners were. Many years after Grandma Trotsky showed me the photograph, I met someone at University whose father had served in RAF ground crew during World War II. He told me how Lancasters would sometimes come back from a mission with the tail gun turret so badly shot up that the only way to dispose of the tail-gunner's remains was to hose them out.

It was Grandma Trotsky herself who first told me the story of her mandolin; at the time I didn't know what a mandolin was. She told it to me when I had just started piano lessons, to encourage me to persist with the five finger exercises and scales which you have to master before you're ready to take on even the simplest melody.

The story is a very plain, simple one: when she was a girl, she had a mandolin and her father would often come home from work and say: "Gi' us a tune on your mandolin, lass."

So she would play her mandolin for her father to make him happy. It made her happy too; she smiled at the memory, every time she told the story. Her smile was more or less a permanent feature; she had smiled so often in her life that it was thoroughly worn in. Her face didn't lend itself to severity.

It wasn't until after she died that I started to piece together a more complete version of the story of Grandma Trotsky's mandolin but there are still a lot of details missing such as what became of the mandolin between the time she was a girl playing tunes for her father and the time she was telling her grandchildren the story of how much she loved playing her mandolin and how much her father loved hearing her play too.

The first hints were general remarks about how she'd had a hard life and a hard time with her father. I learnt that his route home from work usually included a stop at local for a coupl'o' pints before he went on home for his tea. How he would react if it were not ready when he got there. There were the hints about the severity of parental discipline in my grandparents' time and the use of the buckle end of the belt when serious punishment was merited. From a sparse collection of such small clues, I picked up an inkling of why she mighttreasure the memory of playing the mandolin for her father so much.

But it is no more than an inkling and, for now, I'm going to leave it at that, even if it is tempting to confabulate a little and slip in a few reminiscences about the cardboard box my parents started their married lives in. That particular Monty Python sketch is one of my favourites. It's one of my dad's too; I think it might be the only Monty Python sketch he actually likes. It shouldn't be too hard to work out why he does.

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