Around the corner from my parent’s house was a small cottage. Built in the early nineteenth century, of Surrey flint, it stood at right angles to the street. It was the survivor of a rural past, when this meandering road of semi-detached houses had once been a country lane and this cottage was home to a labourer and his family.
The windows and doors needed painting. I would guess that it had no bathroom, and made do with an outside privy. There were still many houses in the 1950s which had no indoor sanitation – which made these semis of the suburbs so attractive with their tiled lavatories and bathrooms directly over the kitchen, drains and plumbing shared and minimised, an economy of design.
It was lived in by a person of ambiguous gender. She had facial warts and facial hair and was not so much large as lumpy. She wore man’s shoes and trousers and a woman’s coat, a baggy plaid Utility number if I remember correctly. I have no doubt in earlier times that a creature such as she would have been branded as a witch. In more recent times, perhaps she may have had to make a living in a fair ground as the bearded lady. Roll up, roll up.
In this neighbourhood of local government clerks, policemen and secondary modern teachers, she stood out. It was too socially insecure to welcome strangeness. How long she had lived there, no one knew. What she had done for a living was obscure. As far as I am aware, no one ever spoke to her. Perhaps she had lived in that cottage all her life, as had her parents and grandparents before her, had watched as the fields and hedgerows were chewed and swallowed by development. That’s progress, isn’t it?
Perhaps she was a newcomer, like her neighbours around her. Where had she come from? Had she been driven out of a small community, and settled for the anonymity of the city? Where was her hinterland, her back-story? Was she even British?
My elder brother met her once at the bus-stop. He was three or four years old, perhaps five. He was standing with my mother as the woman approached. He stared at her, then said, Hello, ugly face.
He was told off, apologies made. What was the woman thinking? Did she see a spoilt brat of a boy with no manners? Did she smart and hurt? Could she share her feelings? She lived alone. Was her world heartless? She lived before there was a social awareness of gender issues and racial tolerance.
I do sometimes think about her. Her image is vivid in my memory, this he-she woman, as we children unkindly called her in that south London suburb in the 1950s.