by Rob Waites
English breakfast tea
Mr and Mrs Brown were married in 1946 after Mr Brown was demobbed from his service in the RAF. Given the housing shortage due to bombing they considered themselves very lucky to get a small flat on the top floor of a rather run-down house in London’s East End.
Money was short and wartime restrictions meant that furnishings for their home were scrounged from friends and relatives or bought for a few shillings from second hand dealers. Much of this was ‘Utility’ furniture produced to cope with war-time material shortages. Some of it was even older having served in the homes of a previous generation. Still, as Mrs Brown remarked, “It’s not expensive items that make a happy home, it’s love.”
Over the succeeding years, things became easier with the post war boom creating rising standards of living. By the early 1960’s, Mr and Mrs Brown were comfortable with Mr Brown having secured a job which came with accommodation.
The flat was new and although most of their existing furniture was an improvement on the old utility furniture they had as newlyweds, it had still been purchased second hand and was not as stylish and comfortable as the items Mrs Brown had seen in the windows of furniture shops. In particular their sideboard and dining table were still the original items purchased when they got married and had seen much better days! To move these into their new flat would be embarrassing and, as Mrs Brown had explained to Mr Brown, “On this new ‘hire purchase scheme you don’t have to save up for things – you just put down a small deposit and then it’s just a few bob a week. We’ll hardly notice it and we can easily manage it out of your wages.”
So, it was settled and after a few weeks, Mr and Mrs Brown were the proud possessors of a dining room suite comprising table, chairs and a sideboard containing a built -in cocktail cabinet. These were all in the latest ‘contemporary’ style with the table and the sideboard finished in shiny laminate imitating mahogany, black legs splayed outwards in a cheeky avant-garde style and gold-coloured fittings. Mrs Brown invited friends in to see the latest additions and was suitably pleased by the admiring remarks. As she explained to her listeners grouped around the table, “You can even put a hot cup of tea on the tops and it doesn’t mark them!”
The new furniture became her pride and joy, particularly the sideboard which was dusted and polished regularly. It also came to be used for displaying keep-sakes and small presents given to her by her children and, later, grandchildren.
In the late 1960s I got to know Mr and Mrs Brown through friendship with her son-in-law. When I visited their home the care she lavished on the sideboard was clear and it still looked as if it was on show in the furniture shop.
When I remarked on the sideboard my friend explained the history and I felt empathy with Mrs Brown. Not that I was a connoisseur of late 1950s' early 1960s' furniture. But I could understand how, someone brought up in the 1920s and 30s, probably surrounded by hand-me-downs from previous generations and who had started married life with war-time utility furniture, could feel a strong attachment bordering on love for the first new and comparatively expensive items of furniture in her life.
Sadly, after over 50 years of married life, Mr Brown died and Mrs Brown moved into a block of flats for elderly people. Downsizing possessions was necessary because of the size of the new accommodation but the prized sideboard was installed in a place of honour. It continued to be loved and polished regularly by Mrs Brown and the trinkets and keepsakes continued to grow in number. The drawers of the sideboard were filled with bits and pieces accumulated over the 40 plus years since it had been purchased.
All things pass and eventually so did Mrs Brown. As I was not a member of the family, I didn’t hear about it at the time. However, I was contacted a couple of weeks later by her son-in-law. Mrs Brown’s flat was owned by the local authority and it needed clearing promptly so that it could be prepared for the new tenant. I was asked to help as there were some heavy items to be shifted.
By the time I met up with my friend at the flat, his wife, and the few other relatives of Mrs Brown, had taken items which they wanted to remember her by leaving an assortment of odds and ends. A couple of charities were asked to take anything they could sell in their shops but when they came and the sideboard was pointed out to them, they all smiled and shook their heads. ”There’s no call for that old stuff now,” was the reply.
We were left with some bundles of odds and ends for the tip and ….the sideboard!! What was to be done with it? We couldn’t leave it in the flat as the Council would charge for removal. My friend had an idea. “There’s a large bin store on the ground floor of the flats….we could take it down in the lift and put it in there.”
I was a little dubious. Although the bin in the store was large, the sideboard would certainly stick out from the top. There would be no hiding it. However, no better idea occurred to us so we reverently carried the sideboard into the lift and took it down to the ground floor. We (still reverently) carried the sideboard outside and found the bin store door open. We hefted the sideboard up and over the side of the bin leaving it partially sticking out at the top!
As nonchalantly as we could we strolled away from the store trying to look as though this was a perfectly normal thing to put in the bin. I looked back from a safe distance and felt a twinge of guilt at seeing Mrs Brown’s pride and joy dumped in a common or garden rubbish bin. I couldn’t shake the idea that we had somehow discarded her life along with the sideboard. Silly I know but that is how I felt at the time – a feeling that hasn’t diminished over the years.
About the author
Rob is 74 years old and has started writing fiction again after a gap of about 50 years. He was promoted to go on a creative writing course by his wife and this resurrected his interest in the genre.