From where I am now, it is easy to see the moment of grace that so clearly illuminated the way home.
It was early September 1990, and I had just spent three weeks at the Edinburgh Festival looking for acts for the 1992 NZ International Festival. I was the Festival’s Deputy Director at the time.
I had to return to London for my flight back to New Zealand, and this provided me with a wonderful opportunity to finally meet my maternal grandmother, Peggy, who was in her early 90’s and lived in a pensioner flat above a Tesco Supermarket in South Croydon. I’d written to her a couple of months before to introduce myself and arrange things.
Not only was this to be the one-and-only time we were to meet – but it was also my first ever visit to London where generations of my mother’s family had spent their lives eking out a living along the east bank of the Thames. Like most East Enders, they were a blended mix of ethnicities and origins – many of whom had be drawn to London to seek their fortunes – but ended up surviving on their wits in some of the most dismal slums to be found anywhere in Europe.
I finally arrived at Nana Peggy’s place in the late afternoon, having left Edinburgh by train earlier in the day.
I made my way up from the street to the roof-top flats, and after a short search, found her door and knocked. Almost immediately I heard her steps moving swiftly across the floor. A far from frail voice with a strong cockney accent called out, “Who’s there?” “It’s Kieron, your Grandson” I responded, trying, not very successfully, to hide the nervousness I was feeling in the pit of my stomach.
After a brief moment, the door opened, and there she was, five foot nothing and full of presence, her long silver-grey hair tied up in a bun at the back. She ushered me inside, stared at me for a moment and then gave me a heartfelt hug.
She reminded me so much of my Mum, yet somehow lighter and less complex. I had brought her a small gift of an ‘air plant’ glued to a piece of driftwood, which seemed to truly delight her.
Though we had never met, there was no awkwardness and it was like I had always known her. We talked about so many things… mostly about her growing up, and my Mum as a child. The realities of her life pre-and-post war, the blitz, the death of her husband, my grandfather, and bringing-up two daughters on practically nothing in the East End of London.
How my mother and father met at a roller-skating rink just before the outbreak of WW2. What a great skater my Dad was – and how my Mum kept falling over on purpose to attract his attention, which totally worked! And then their rushed, war-time marriage at Tottenham Court Registry Office on the 28th of April 1941.
Dinner that night was traditional ‘Bangers and Mash’ with a simple green salad – just like my Mum used to make – and I remember thinking that maybe the apple didn’t fall that far from the tree after all.
The flow of conversation barely paused over dinner, but as soon as I’d eaten I began to feel extremely tired. Three weeks at the Edinburgh Festival had taken its toll. I’d seen fifty-two individual shows during my time there – sometimes up to five a day, often starting at 10am and finishing well after midnight.
Nana noticed I was fading fast and led me to my room saying she would do the after-dinner clean-up. I was too tired to make any kind of show of protesting, and was deeply grateful for her obvious compassion.
I don’t really remember getting into bed that night. Exhaustion had taken over and I was obviously on automatic pilot. One thing for sure though, I went out like a light the moment my head hit the pillow.