WHEN I was growing up, mealtimes in our house were always fairly formal. My dad, when he got home from the office, would change from his work shirt and tie into another shirt and tie, and my mam would go and put on some pearls, and a dab of perfume that she’d bought from a glittery shop in Doncaster.
They were of a certain generation, of course; they had gone through the war with all its flying shrapnel and powdered milk and lack of bananas, so I guess that for them putting on an evening tie and a set of pearls represented a return to normality and steadiness.
Mind you, as a kid I always thought that my dad should have donned the pearls and my mam should have tied on the tie. That would have been a heck of a family photo for the sideboard!
At the end of the meal, they always insisted that my brother and I asked permission to leave the table; it seems almost impossible to believe in 2011 that a family in Barnsley would have such archaic rules in the early 1960s, but it’s true. We had to say “Please may I leave the table?” and there’d be a moment of silence before my dad would nod and say, “Off you go”.
I’ve always been a rebellious type so I tried to subvert the rule as often as I could. I would mumble the request, slurring my words together like a drunk: “PleezemayIlevethtable?” or I’d act the line as though I was Gielgud and it was Shakespeare: “Prithee, gentle parents, may I make so bold as to leave this place of splendid repast?” or I’d pretend that I was John Wayne and the room was a chuck wagon: “Hey, pardners, I done gone ’n’ finished mah beans, yeeeha!”
None of this impressed my dad, who would just sit and wait for a while until I asked properly.
One thing that got my mother riled, for reasons I could never really work out, was reaching over the table to get food or condiments. As I stretched out my arm to grab the red sauce, she’d slap my hand and say “You’re not in the outhouse today!”, a phrase that made no sense then or now.
Once, though, something so delicious and memorable happened that it rings in my memory like a bell. My mam liked dandelion and burdock with her Sunday dinner, a big glass full to the top.
On one particular day she’d just taken a huge slurp of her pop and then she set it down next to her and reached over me, actually reached over me, to get to the roast potatoes. She spooned up a roast, began to ferry it to her plate, it teetered on her spoon like a fat kid on a diving board and then plunged into the dandelion and burdock with a spuddy plop.
There was a silence my dad could have carved with the big knife he was using on the roast. We could hear Mr Page next door playing mournful hymns on his piano. The potato bobbed in the pop like a tench.
My mam didn’t hesitate: she took a big swig of the potato/pop mix and said “Mmmm…lovely!”, daring any of us to contradict her. None of us did.
Please may I leave the column?