Wednesday, 9 September 2015

The Day the Queen Came to Tea

for Agnes and Jackie who did those things....

I was clearing out his old wooden garage on that last warm Sunday, and when I say garage, I don’t think he ever actually kept a car in there. It was used as his den where he built and invented contraptions, and where strange noises would escape out into the street scaring the Old Francis’ Twins at number 17. This was in the days of the science fiction movies at the Palace Picture House and the neighbours were convinced that he was in cahoots with spacemen. 

My great uncle had been an engineer and probably much, much more - but his finest achievement, as far as the street was concerned, was the day he built a television out of an old oscilloscope.

My great uncle’s name was Tony and he loved tinkering with machines, and ballroom dancing with my great aunt, Sadie. If he wasn’t in his den, he was up at the Paris Palais skipping the light fantastic: Tony and Sadie, the best couple at foxtrot this side of the Black Hills. The cups and medals in their little lounge told a million stories of hours practised, and feet taped up and hurting.

But that day in 1953 was the pinnacle of his weird science. It had been announced that Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation was to be shown on television - and you have to remember that this was a small town on the coast and no one had a television in those days. So my great uncle Tony decided to build one from the junk he had lying about his den. If anyone could do it, uncle Tony could.

Sammy’s Old Emporium at the top of Easter Street used to sell all the junk that would keep a man who liked to mess with things, really happy. It was a gold mine for my uncle. If he were missing, you knew where to look, and you could always hear my great aunt Sadie shouting:
“Can someone run down Sammy’s and drag that man of mine out? Tell him his flaming dinner is ready.”

It wasn’t unusual for my wonderful great aunt to go marching down to Sammy’s Old Emporium with a plate of food, which she’d slam down, on the table and tell my uncle that if he loved the shop so much, well then he could just stay there.

But that day in June, my aunt forgave him everything.

He had started working on the project, as it was known, right after New Year’s Day. He was to be found searching for this and that in the garage before the sun even came up. By the time I went around to his house, I could smell the whiff of burning Bakelite drifting down the street. I knew he was off and running.

He wasn’t just my great uncle; he was my pal, he was my best friend. For a few years now, my dad had lain in a field in France and Uncle Tony had stepped into his shoes. I always loved working with him in his den; he was one of those people who made you feel better. I’d leave his house, always in better mood than when I’d got there. I guess something like that is a gift, and thank the lord for it.

By Easter of 1953, he had managed to blow up early versions of the television and set fire to the Den on more than one occasion. It happened so often that when my Aunt Sadie looked over at the wooden garage to see smoke bellowing out, she’d just shrug her shoulders and continue beating the carpet that she had hung over the clothes-line. Perhaps she beat it just a little bit harder.

Sometime in May, Uncle Tony and me were down Sammy’s looking for an old tube to act as the screen. Sammy was my Uncle Tony’s best pal from school and he should have retired a long time ago but, as Sammy said:

“There is something addictive about junk shops that gets into your blood. You never know the treasures you’ve got under your roof.”

Then he’d spit on the floor. When Sammy felt he had said something important or clever he’d spit right in front of you. Sometimes you had to duck or weave to avoid being hit.

“I’ve got this old oscilloscope,” said Sammy. “Might just be the thing, you’re looking for Tone.”

I had to ask what a mosillyskope was. Uncle Tony said that was an easy question:

“Why it’s the answer to all out problems.”  Then both my uncle and Sammy spat on the floor. I tried, but my mouth was a bit dry, so Tony just ruffled my hair and said:

“One day.”

When it looked as if we really would have a television ready for the Coronation (albeit a green and white picture – well we had nothing to judge it against), my Aunt Sadie issued invitations to all our friends and neighbours.

“Your presence is requested at the Coronation of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth the Second accompanied by her husband, Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. On June 2nd, 1953.

Tea and cakes will be provided.

Yours, Anthony and Sadie Blest”.

Aunt Sadie made it seem that the Queen would be present for tea and cakes, herself. You see no one was really sure what having the television meant, so perhaps it was just like having the Royal family in your front room after all.

It was my job to deliver the invitations to all the houses down the far end of the street. Everywhere I called, someone would ask if I would like to come in for a cup of tea – by the end of the street, I was almost ready to burst. I had one more house to go to and it belonged to Fancy Freddie He was named this on account (apparently) of the clothes he used to wear in his younger days. Since his wife died, his only companion was Winston the dog and that dog was legendary in the street.

He wasn’t a bad dog, you understand, just a bit lively when it came to chasing things or stealing things – a bit like Fancy Freddie in his younger days. I was just about to put an invitation into Freddie’s place when Winston jumped on me, made me drop the invites and ran off with the lot of them.

According to Freddie, when I saw him later, he said that Winston had buried all the invitations somewhere in his large garden.

On the morning of the Coronation, the tea was made, the cakes were brought in from all over the street and everyone sat down to their first television programme.

Uncle Tony was still having teething problems with the picture on the screen as the friends and neighbours arrived.  

The old lady from next door kept mentioning about the picture being in green, she said “I didn’t realise the Queen was green in real life.”

Her daughter had to keep telling her that it was Tony’s funny television and  that it made everyone that way.

Just as everything looked ready, the picture went black. The old lady from next-door wondered if the Abbey had fallen down.  Actually it was Winston, Fancy Freddie’s dog, who had grabbed the end of my uncle’s makeshift aerial and was running around the garden with the end of it between its teeth.

The aerial had been fixed to the side of the house and it would take too long to get it back in place.  The wire had to be stretched out as far as possible, so the solution, although not the greatest, was that everyone watching the television should stand out in the garden holding a piece of the aerial. Then each person would have five minutes of watching the Coronation before they were back out in the garden on aerial duty. The old lady from next door was exempt, and then Fancy Freddie, whose dog had caused all the trouble, refused to help and left the house in a mood. My auntie caught him looking at the television in through the window. So she shut the curtains.

The rest of us got to see a few minutes every so often and I have to say it was well worth the trouble. The fun was finished with tea and cakes and a new Queen.

That warm day, all those years later, when I cleared out my great Uncle Tony’s garage, I found the television set. Yes it was a bit dusty, but it looked just as it had been all those years ago.

And so I spat on the floor. That’s for you, great Uncle Tony.” 

bobby stevenson 2015 

wee bobby.

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