Her ‘Nora Batty’ tights hung in thick bunches around her heavy ankles, feet spreading out of her worn-down slipper backs. Topsy, or Aunty Gladys – which was her real name – filled out every bit of herself in her once pleated skirt and frilly apron. Her legs were the largest part of her physically. She always had a swathe of bandaging around her left leg, which the district nurse came to dress every Friday and Monday. Topsy had holes in her legs. At least that’s what Ma said.
All of us kids loved Topsy. She had smiley blue eyes behind silver rimmed glasses and always a huge smile on her face, even when you weren’t looking. She clucked and chuckled and called us ‘love’ and ‘pet’ though she knew all our names. Best of all Topsy always had cakes for us: dainty butterfly cakes with real butter cream, not ‘Stork’, and white iced buns with a bright red cherry on top, and dark sticky slices we didn’t know the name of. Topsy baked. She baked for her brother’s restaurant, and she baked for us. Her back door was always open and her cake and biscuit tin, unlike the one at home, were never empty.
I went to Topsy’s from school, until Ma was home. We’d sit in the kitchen and she would natter about the neighbours, Uncle Herbert – her husband – or village gossip. She never said bad things about people, and she was never cross like Ma and she never talked about silly things like school, boys or parents. I liked that. Topsy was my baking fairy god-mother with a wooden spoon instead of a magic wand. I wanted to live with her in her heaven of cakes and the smell of fresh baked rolls, and her big flabby arms that hugged you tight. Ma couldn’t bake and she certainly never hugged me.
I can’t really remember what happened now, probably Billy Wilson or some other silly boy said something nasty and I kicked him in the shins. Fair cop if you ask me, but Miss Coombes saw it and yanked me by the arm to Mr Fairclough’s office, the headmaster. I was supposed to wait there until he could see me. Well, I couldn’t hear him in there at all, but the smell of old books and polish freaked me out a bit – we didn’t have either at home- and I decided to leg it up to Topsy’s.
Rita, the district nurse, was leaving as I arrived and she eyed me suspiciously, but Topsy welcomed me in without questions. We sat at the big wooden table in the kitchen and ate rich tea biscuits and drank tea, the real stuff that you make in a tea pot. I should have known then that something was wrong. Topsy never bought biscuits. But I was a smaller kid then and I was more worried about the hiding I’d get when I got home than why Topsy was giving me shop bought biscuits. ‘So pet, what’s up then?’ she asked.
And I told her about kicking Billy, and running away from the headmaster and all. She smiled at me and a tear crept from the corner of her right eye. I reached up to wipe it away. ‘Don’t cry Aunty Gladys, it’ll be alright. Once Ma gives me the slipper and talks to Mr Fairclough it’ll be right as nine-pence!’ She smiled at that, and the tears were gone, but I could tell she wasn’t really happy.
Ma came to get me, but Topsy didn’t tell about me kicking Billy. Still, I was sure Ma’d find out, and sure enough there was a note pushed through the letterbox. I got the slipper, but no tea. Worse than that Ma said I couldn’t go to Topsy’s that weekend. I was raging. Ma was so unfair. Well, she wasn’t stopping me from seeing my baking goddess. I unlatched the casement window and shimmied down the drainpipe onto the lavvy roof, and dropped easily to the ground. I could get to Topsy’s and back before lunch.
I’d never seen Topsy’s back door shut before. There it was a big brown wooden door, barring the entrance to the kitchen. Nosey Maureen from next door must have seen me. She came out of her lavvy and called me over. ‘Hey, our Ruthie, you’ll not be seeing your Aunty Gladys for a wee bit.’
I was at a complete loss. ‘Why not Aunty Maureen?’
‘Didn’t yer Ma tell you? Gladys is in hospital. Might not be coming home by all accounts.’
I didn’t know I was crying till I felt the hot wet on my cheeks. I wiped my nose on my sleeve and sniffed loudly. ‘But of course she’ll be home. She has to bake!’
I didn’t see Topsy again, at least, not alive anyway. She didn’t want us kids to see her in the hospital with tubes and wires poking out. She asked our parents not to take us. I was so mad with her.
I still went to her house after school and sat on the back door step. Uncle Herbert was never in. Ma said he lived at the pub now. Sometimes I played with Aunty Maureen’s little girl, Mary, and sometimes I just sat there feeling sad that there would be no cakes, no tea, no Topsy. Ma had given me a key to get in at home with, but it didn’t seem right going home without seeing Topsy first.
The last time I did see her, she wasn’t like herself at all. Ma didn’t want me to see her and nor did the stern man in the suit, but I had to say goodbye to her. I had to. They’d taken her glasses off and her eyes were shut. She had a white dress on instead of her piny, and she didn’t smell of bread and cakes and biscuits, but something like disinfectant. I wanted her to hug me with her big warm arms and say ‘it’ll be all right, pet’ but she didn’t seem to really be there. She was cold and silent – and dead.
I tried to tell her it would be all right, that she’d be baking cakes in heaven for all God’s angels, but I wasn’t sure about that, so I just slipped the Mr Kipling’s Bakewell down the side of the coffin, under her dress. I didn’t think Mr Shah would mind I’d nicked the box of 6, and I knew Topsy wouldn’t either.