Yorkshire Times
A Voice of the North
Kaye McGann
Features Writer
11:46 AM 3rd July 2021

Grandad And The Siren

Chambers Dictionary: Siren – a fascinating woman, insidious and deceptive

Elizabeth Taylor - Image by Flybynight from Pixabay
Elizabeth Taylor - Image by Flybynight from Pixabay
Now, I haven’t said much about my mother’s older sister – the one who turned up at Uncle Jim’s funeral (see ‘Uncle Jim Pops His Clogs’), but after a lot of soul searching I’ve decided she needs a mention. She and my mother did not get on, which is an understatement. In fact, they loathed each other. I attribute this to the baleful influence of their maternal grandmother, Sarah Watson Greenwood (passim), who played one off against the other, and generally damaged them and their capacity for empathy. One of the effects of this was that neither of them got on with other people either; or rather, they did for a time, and then ‘fell out’. Both were obsessed with ‘appearances’, which mattered more to them than substance.

My aunt was much more flamboyant than my mother. She professed to dislike her parents, but despite this expected them to act as childminders in the school holidays. My little cousin would be taken into town when her parents went to work, and Grandad would meet her there, and take her to spend the day with him and Grandma. I usually went round to their house so that she and I could play together most days. Then, after tea (at about five o’clock), Grandad would take her back to town, where one of her parents would meet her to take her home.

The incident I want to tell you about happened when I was eight, and my cousin was seven. It was during the Korean War, and Mervyn Butterworth, an older teenager who helped Grandad with his poultry, had been called up for National Service. He was very good-looking, and had a kind and helpful nature too. He’d been helping Grandad on his smallholding in the afternoon, and when the time came to take my cousin to meet her mother, he went with them; and so did I.

Here might be an appropriate place to describe my aunt’s appearance, so as to set the scene. It is no exaggeration to say she was stunningly beautiful. ‘Stunning’ is a word much overused, but in this case it is appropriate. People would turn to look at her in the street, both men and women. She had a mass of wavy black hair, and china-blue eyes with thick black lashes. Her figure was hour-glass, and she dressed to accentuate it. Imagine Elizabeth Taylor in her prime. She was perfectly aware of the effect she had, and couldn’t understand anyone not falling under her spell. (She never forgave my dad for preferring her younger sister).

Well, there we were, meeting by the Wellington Hotel. Grandad introduced nineteen-year-old Mervyn to her, and my thirty-nine-year-old aunt positively smouldered at him. Her eyelashes fluttered, her (not insignificant) bosom heaved. She took his hand and pressed it to the said bosom, and said huskily, “Oh, Mr. Butterworth, I’ve heard SO much about you.”

The lad stood there as if mesmerised, like a rabbit frozen in a car’s headlights. I don’t know if he was terrified, or thought all his Christmases had come at once: possibly both. Grandad looked from one to the other, and summed up the situation; and he knew his daughter. “Come on, girls,” he said, taking each of us by the hand. And we trailed back to Grandma’s, leaving ‘Mr. Butterworth’ to a memorable experience, before being shipped overseas.

At the time, I was too young to understand what was going on: but I knew something was. When I got home, I related the scene to my parents, and acted out the parts in turn. I’ve always been a fairly good mimic, and my performance as my aunt must have been particularly fine, as my parents roared with laughter, and over the years asked me to repeat it. I suspect the first time was the best, as I shimmied my skinny gangly body about, and clasped an imaginary hand to my imaginary bosom, like a voluptuous siren.

I think Grandad’s lack of surprise, and indeed resignation, at what happened, tells you a lot about his and Grandma’s relationship with their elder daughter.

After Grandma died, and in the short time between then and when Grandad decided he was going to marry again (see ‘Grandad Goes Courting’), there were just a couple of months or so, and what follows may give some idea of one reason he made that decision.

At that time, my aunt and uncle were living in a big house at Balderstone (though not as big as the next one they bought on their upwards trajectory, which had its own lake, and guard dogs patrolling the grounds. They were, as the saying goes, ‘not short of a bob or two.’)

My aunt and uncle went to see Grandad, and told him he had to go to live at their house.

This ‘offer’ came with conditions:

1. He was to have his own room, and would have to stay in it if they had guests or visitors. He would also have his own bathroom.
2. On no account was he ever to use one of their lavatories, in any circumstances.
3. He was to hand over his pension book, and to make a new will, leaving everything to my aunt.

Hardly ‘Make me an offer I can’t refuse.’ Grandad, as he said later, was heartbroken; but he was not going to let it show. He was more than a match for this.

“That all seems to be in order,” he said, “but I have a couple of conditions of my own first.

1. I’ll need half your garden to keep my poultry, and I’ll need to put a couple of hen cotes on it.
2. You’ll have to get rid of that dog. (They had an Alsatian dog chained up outside, which was let loose at night to patrol the grounds). It would frighten my hens.
3. I’ll want a written agreement to these conditions, signed in front of a solicitor.”

Needless to say, my aunt was furious, and did her usual storming-out routine, saying, “Right! I’ve finished with you!”

It was a subdued Grandad who came straight up to our house to tell my parents what had happened. I was there, and know how shaken he was. This was an eighty-eight-year-old man, whose beloved wife of sixty-six years had just died, and his daughter, who should love him, had shown that all she wanted was his bit of money. It had taken guts to stand up to her.

“I know now what she thinks of me: not good enough to be seen by her poncey friends. Only wanted for my bit of brass. I never thought I’d live to see the day when I’d call one of my own a black-hearted bitch, but that’s what she is.” And he sat down, shaking.

Grandad had never touched alcohol, having seen what it did to his father, but he meekly took the glass of Bell’s my dad gave him.

“You’re well out of it,” my dad said, “and you’ve still got us.” And I put my arms round Grandad, and gave him a big hug.

Footnote: I kept in touch with my cousin, still living with her mother; and when my mother died, aged eighty-seven, I rang to tell my aunt, her older sister, whose response was, “Well, she was never strong.” My aunt lived to be two months short of a-hundred-and-two, and was still running her business at the time of her death. My cousin pre-deceased her by two months.