I don’t remember how I met them. I don’t remember where. The how and the where are as irrelevant now as they were then.
The room is crowded and cosy, bright – too bright – with long plastic strip lights gracing the high white ceiling. Bob Holness’ voice is booming out the big box of a television which is sandwiched between the doorway and the fireplace. Each week Bob’s contestants look hopeful and confident. Blockbusters is as much a ritual of this tea-time as the egg and chips which I know will soon be ready.
Evie, short, stout, white-grey, couthie, sits in her easy chair beside the watery-pictured television set. We chat comfortably through the game show, about the questions on the telly and school drama. Bella, a slightly taller, darker version of her sister, joins the conversation from the kitchen, just behind the sofa, where she stands, pinny on, spatula in hand, in front of sizzling pans on the gleaming white Belling electric cooker.
Bella and Evie: sisters, companions, house-mates, my elderly neighbours from across the road and up the narrow lane. Every Wednesday after school my little brother and I head out. Down the gloomy flights of stairs from our ugly, modern, top-floor maisonette, across the road, and up the narrow lane to the pretty, old, granite fishermen’s cottages.
Unlike the rest of the cottages, theirs is set side-on to the lane, with a quaint paved garden to the front, studded with rose bushes and climbers. A set of well-worn steps lead up from the lane to the garden. It isn’t far from where we live, but it’s a world apart. The sisters are waiting for us, with a smile and a cup of tea. Six sugars please, says my little brother.
The plates arrive. Bella places them on our knees and sits down beside us with hers. Sometimes we eat at the small dining table in the back corner of the room – just enough space for four. But not today. We eat, watching Bob, trying to answer the questions he asks his contestants, laughing when we get them wrong, mopping up yolk with our chips and sipping sweet, milky tea.
Two elderly sisters. Alone. Together. In the moment of childhood it doesn’t even cross my mind to ask if they were married, if they have children, grandchildren, any family to call their own. Each week we follow the egg and chips ritual, without question, without hesitation, without asking. My brother and I know we are welcome.
We moved to this small North East fishing town, our new home, just a few years earlier. It feels like a lifetime ago. My brother and I, and our mum. We knew no-one. Our reason for being there is irrelevant now. Our friends and family are hundreds of miles away, somewhere warmer, more familiar. We make some friends but are always incomers.
The language is a challenge: fit like? Loons. Quines. Dookers. It takes a while, but we soon have one way to speak at home, another at school. Playground survival 101.
Many years later. So many things have changed. The place that was strange is now our home. One thing that remains is the warmth in my heart for two lovely ladies, and a plate of egg and chips.