The House of Provisions
In 1942, my mother would sit on the bus home from school and eat an imaginary sandwich. The journey on the 436 from Guildford to Addlestone took over an hour and was followed by a long walk from the bus stop to the house. To outwit her hunger she stared into the aisle of the bus and pictured a sandwich. She was fourteen. Her name was Patty Cockle.
She began in the usual way with a slice of bread, and gave it a cuff of white crumbs where the knife had taken bite. To this she applied a film of margarine sprinkled with sugar, and then another slice of greased bread, the whole thing pressed down and cut in two and two diagonally – a dainty sandwich on a pretty china plate. She sat down at a table, on her own, savouring the yeasty tack of the bread on her palate, the grit-sweet melt of the sugar. By the time she got off the bus, she felt nourished, if not fed.
Soon after the armistice in 1945, an elderly man took a photograph of a street party in Weston Avenue. The frame is packed with faces, most of them children and youngsters. A few of the mothers are there at the edges, the men still away. Their joy seems to fly out of the picture. They are young, apparently unscathed, and are wearing the Sunday best of folk who have one good set of clothes. My aunts and uncles are there, children on the shoulders of other children, babies in the arms of brothers and sisters. Patty is there. She’s just turned seventeen and she smiles out of the crowd, her face cheeky and lovely.
It is hard to imagine she will also inhabit a life with me, for she seems fixed to this place, this time, to its bunting and jostling energy. She looks towards the camera and, it seems to me, through the lens into the chamber of mirrors and photographic plates where she appears upside down alongside her friends. She would enjoy the silliness of that, and its aptness, for the war has stood her on her head. I could be wistful and say she is looking to the future, and that the black box of the camera transforms before her gaze into the house she and my father come to live in, a place where I exist. But such a place is more than twenty years ahead and no one, not even Patty with her visionary’s eye, can see that far. Although she knows my father, she has yet to meet him again. Although he’s been called up and gone, he’s still the errand boy. I imagine, instead, the photograph was taken and the old man bantered into lifting up the cloth from the tripod, then lifting up the children to the squint to show them how it’s done.
© Lois Willliams, 2015. ‘The House of Provisions' first published in Granta, 2008.
To read the entire essay, link to https://granta.com/issues/granta-103-the-rise-of-the-british-jihad/