Wednesday April 9, 2008
My maternal grandfather, known in the family as Fred Paige, had a shed in his back garden, almost filling the available space. To my boyhood eyes it was as large as he was small. He was my grandmother’s second husband, so not really my grandfather at all, but I was a polite kid and saw no harm in humoring him. A nice old guy so far as I can recall though I have to admit I never saw him again after my grandmother died in the late 1950s.
She was as large and fierce as he was timid and small. I was a little frightened of her, especially when she crossed the lane from the cottage to the chicken pen, axe in hand and murder in her eyes, intent on securing a small fowl for our supper. I’d be sent off at that point, to play out of sight and sound in Fred’s shed while the gory parts were done. I am grateful for that, and even more grateful they’d given up keeping a pig in the pen behind the chickens.
The shed was dark, filled with mysterious things stored in tarry boxes and wrapped tight in sacking. Fred was way too old by then to do any of the things that blokes did in sheds except sit in an old armchair, rolling and smoking one skinny cigarette after another, the lid of his tobacco tin clinking and clacking the hours away. We had little to say to one another. Even my boyish chatter was stilled in the dark, earthy-blokey air of Fred’s shed. They were safe, companionable times, in my recollection.
And that’s about all I remember of poor old Fred. He was not highly regarded in the family and, from what I can deduce of the few pictures of him I have in my head, the feeling was entirely mutual. He took his meals alone in the damp, cold scullery at the back of the kitchen while my grandmother presided over the table in the kitchen, close by the coal range and under the old portrait of Queen Victoria that hung over the mantelpiece, flickering in the gas light.
Shortly after she died, my grandmother’s cottage was condemned as ‘unfit for human habitation’ and poor old Fred was evicted, to be carried off to the old folk’s home that was still known as the workhouse back then. The family forgot him and I’ve no other knowledge of him or what happened to him after that.
Sad, isn’t it, how all those old guys wandered quietly and inoffensively through life, to end it with their face turned to the wall in some strange place? All those unwritten, forgotten histories.
Acting on impulse I took a Google Maps trip just now, looking for the lane and the cottage. The lane is still there, though it’s been renamed from ‘Place’ to ‘Drive’ and there are houses each side of it. There are a couple of nice little houses on the ground where the chickens and pigs were kept, and grandmother’s cottage is completely obliterated, replaced by a rather grand-looking house with a large Volvo estate car parked outside. The satellite view shows no more than a featureless dark space where Fred’s shed would have been. I’d like to think there are a few bits of the timber buried there still, decaying slowly, and giving off just a ghostly trace of old bloke smell.
I shall visit it again in six months or so, when the ‘satellite’ pictures have been upgraded, to see if there are any visible signs to back up my memories. I rather doubt I shall see anything, even though it was a remarkably stout shed.