My grandfather was the youngest of 13, born in Deptford, south-east London, to parents who struggled to make ends meet.
By the end of his life, he and my grandmother were living comfortably in an Eastbourne seaside flat.
He was – although this phrase is over-used – a self-made man. He grew a gentleman’s outfitters – coats, shirts, hats, socks – in Potter’s Bar. By the time he closed the shop, he had put two children through school and saved up enough money for a comfortable retirement.
As his grandson, I saw only the latter part of the story. A man who played bowls and checked the Daily Telegraph for share prices everyday. There were cigars at Christmas and mixed martinis on weekends.
Even trips to Australia and a Norwegian cruise.
My grandmother loved to give us pocket money. She would slip twenty pence pieces into my and my brother’s hands each visit, saying, “Don’t tell Grandad.” She had to collect this stash of coins in secret – giving away money to us was not permitted.
Money was tight – even when it wasn’t.
Words commonly heard in my family were, “we can’t afford it.” My mother would have a concerned look on her face, fearing we were about to tip over a financial cliff.
There we no ski trips to the Alps or visits to Disneyland, but there were memory-making caravan holidays in Yorkshire, Dorset and the Lakes. Even a couple of Augusts navigating France. We could afford these – and that was just fine.
As a boy, I didn’t see my grandfather’s childhood. All I saw were its ghosts – phantoms that whispered the past into those whose ears were able to hear.
There’s a story there that I will never understand. I can see only the lessons it taught.