I race across the musty, cabbage-smelling hall to knock on her door. It’s a grand old house fallen on hard times, converted into bedsits, the old way of life gone with the arrival of the swinging 60s.
She opens the door and welcomes me in. My ‘Auntie’ Zonya. An older lady newly-met, a friend of my Mum, the age of my grandmother or possibly older. She has just arrived home and is still unbuttoning her coat, pulling her headscarf off her strange red hair. It is a cold wet night, winter and dreary. A sound from her shopping bag makes me turn, wondering.
‘What’s that?’ I ask.
‘My fish and chips,’ she tells me, ‘for my supper.’
There it is again. Fish and chips don’t make that noise. I look at her face. She isn’t laughing, so perhaps after all, they do? I’m four and a half, so what do I know?
The sound comes again, and now I’m definitely suspicious. Somehow, although she doesn’t smile, I know she’s teasing me. Somehow I know I’m allowed to question what she’s told me. I persist, and am finally rewarded with two things – her smile, and a small black kitten – not chips after all! – from her shopping bag. My first cat.
At infant school, we write our ‘news’ – basically a short report on what we’ve been doing in our everyday lives – we’re learning self-expression, creativity and the writing process.
I write about my Auntie Zonya. She’s deaf, smokes heavily and has a harsh gravelly voice like a man. She’s in her 50s, which to me seems impossibly old. She used to be a dancer, I write, she did ballet all over the world until the war came. I finish off with a nice little picture at the bottom of the page – me, Mum and Auntie Zonya.
The teacher comes round to look at our work – I can’t remember which teacher it was whether it was the old lady with the white hair and a thick, crusty face that cracked, or whether it was the younger, iron-haired angry one who led me about by my plait and very clearly hated me.
Whoever it was, she pointed out that Zonya should be spelled Sonia, and I am not able to persuade her otherwise, even though I’ve seen her name written down a number of times: ‘To Carolyn love from Auntie Zonya’. Also, the hair is wrong. I try to explain that the school’s wax crayons aren’t the really truly right shade of red for Auntie Zonya’s hair, and I try to explain that I didn’t remember which colours mix together to make reddy orange. But my teacher doesn’t want to listen to these explanations, she is still determined to make me see that Ladies do not have – and never have – hair that shade of red.
I try to tell her that Auntie Zonya is pretty unusual and not like other ladies and that her hair really is an astonishing shade of red, but now I’m in trouble for talking back and being a liar. So I have to stand in the corner of the class and the other children laugh, and I feel like I’m sticking up above them by miles, I feel like I really stand out and everyone can see me. And I wish Auntie Zonya would come to the school now and show them all he amazing hair.
Of course, now I can see that there was a little something about the way the teacher said ‘Ladies do not…’ that I didn’t understand at that time. Now, looking back, I see it – my bedsit-poor, no-father background led the teacher to make an assumption about the type of ‘lady’ Zonya was, and my Mum was tarred with the same brush.
Now, as then, I feel I am the only one who knew she was warm, glamorous and more vibrantly alive in her 50s and 60s than anyone else I’ve ever met. Even then she made me believe anything was possible. She was startling.