May 16 2005

It’s not something my family talks about much, but my mum was a junkie. Long before it became fashionable.
As addictions go, hers was fairly harmless, but her cravings were real, rarely satisfied and never kicked.
She made regular visits to a dusty, long forgotten den hidden in the maze of terraces that lay between Earl Street and the back of the old police station in Bath Street, bulldozed and replaced years ago to make way for the Guildhall shopping centre and the replacement St John’s market.
Her supplier was a taciturn character in homburg and heavy belted overcoat, whose activities were conducted by the light of one small gas mantle. Shady was the word. No one knew who supplied him.
Deals were done, money changed hands, few words spoken. He knew how to mind his own business and expected his customers to do the same.
Meet Mr Turner, junk man.
His shop was always freezing, hence presumably, his hat and overcoat. But it was a wondrous grotto that over many years provided my mother and the rest of our family with countless treasures. For me, these included a complete set of Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encylopaedia (a gift “to Alex, Christmas 1914”), the best fort a boy ever had and a violin, a fake Strad that raised and dashed all our hopes in one memorable week in the early 50s.
Such was my mother’s habit.
But Mr Turner’s – the shop was never called anything else – was not the only place she went for a fix.
Auctions were held every other Friday at the town’s two Smithfield cattle markets –  the Sun in Lichfield Road and the Talbot in Victoria Square. And pens that on other days held cows and sheep on their way to the abbatoir, were stuffed with junk.
My mother was a regular bidder. Among many other things, she collected brass and would bring home boxes of ornaments, plaques embossed with Spanish galleons, horse brasses and, once, a nutcracker shaped like a crocodile. She’d bring furniture: occasional tables, bookcases and such that smelled of french polish and cowdung.
And sometimes there were pianos.
She was an adventurous one-finger pianist. Her rendering of My Sweet Little Alice Blue Gown was a ground-breaking musical journey that in its audacity could surprise both player and listeners, the tune often lasting as long as a concerto while she searched for the right note. We knew she’d find it – there were only 85 keys (three didn’t work) so it had to be there somewhere. But we never held our breath.
She bought pianos like some women buy hats. Every year or so we had a different model, usually more ornate than its predecessor. One, a Victorian walnut affair as big as a wardrobe, had built-in candlesticks and burnished keys the colour of nicotine. And every one of them made a noise.
Alice Blue Gown never sounded better.
She gave up playing when my sister brought home the boyfriend she later married who turned out to be an accomplished pianist. He used all his fingers and I don’t think mum ever forgave him.

 

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