She died with a fag in her mouth.


In the early 1900`s my family ran a large greengrocer`s shop in Acocks Green.  Above the shop was a huge, five bedroom flat where I was to be born in 1953.  My grandad Edward would get up at the crack of dawn to take his horse and cart five miles to the market to pick up produce to sell and my nan Polly and Edward`s sister Mary helped him in the busy shop.  Mary was always a heavy smoker, she always had a cigarette dangling from her mouth and in spite of her twenty to thirty a day habit managed to live well into her eighties.  She had been a nurse and brought many grateful soldiers back to full health during the first world war.  I know this because as a child, I was given her autograph book signed by lots of the men she nursed and it was filled with some fascinating drawings and poems which accompanied their thanks to her.  One drunken night in my twenties I gave it away to a woman who really loved it and I have regretted that but hey ho, it was a long time ago.

One night during World War 2 a few years before I was born, there was a heavy bombing raid over Birmingham.  Everyone apart from Aunty Mary fled to the large and damp concrete air raid shelter which had been built in the fields at the back of the house to protect the local community.  Mary was a stoic and she refused, as she put it, “to be made to leave her own home because of  The Hun.”  Referring to German soldiers as The Hun was a highly effective piece of propaganda seized upon by British politicians in WW2 in order to demonise the German troops.  Remember Attila the Hun?

Mary had gone to the loo that night presumably to have a fag and take her mind off the air raid.  She was perched on the throne refusing to be put out by Hitler when a bomb happened to fall right outside the flat, exploding and creating a massive crater in the Warwick Road.  The accompanying vibrations to the building literally blew Mary off the toilet so on that occasion, she must have been somewhat relieved to find herself still in tact.  Actually the night time raid also hit St. Mary`s Church in Acocks Green and did a huge amount of damage to that lovely building but like my Aunty Mary, the church too, survived.

Some years after the war, I had been born and spent a lot of my time with my nanny and Aunty Mary who now shared a house together in Dudley Park Road in Acocks Green.  They had retired and my mother and father were always occupied with shop business not that I especially minded at that time, my nanny was my favourite person in the world.

I used to watch Aunty Mary preparing food in the small, nineteen fifties kitchen.  She and nanny always wore aprons and Mary`s fags and matches would be kept available in the pocket of her apron.  She always smelt a mixture of fags and Rennies, I remember it distinctly.

I have a vivid childhood memory of watching Mary making gravy for Sunday dinner in a large roasting tin, the ever present fag hanging down. I was fascinated and childishly horrified as a good inch of ash which had been perilously close to dropping, finally departed from the cigarette and fell like a humungous grey snowflake, down with a gentle plop into the roasting tin.  Unperturbed Mary simply continued to stir the ash into the gravy.

After my nan died, Mary went to be taken care of by my Uncle Alan who lived in Great Barr and from time to time, we would all go to visit her and say hello to my cousins Stephen and Rita.  Alan`s wife Elsie was a very house proud woman and I remember it was a bit like visiting royalty.  My uncle, also a greengrocer worked very hard and the house reflected that with fine furniture and beautiful carpets throughout.  It must have been all the more galling for him therefore, to cope with the manner in which my Aunty Mary had chosen to die.

That day, she had lit a fag and as in WW1 all those years ago, retired to the toilet for a quiet smoke.  God called her, it was her time and she passed away and let her body slip off the loo and on to the newly laid pale green carpet.   Unfortunately, her body was blocking the door so too late, my Uncle Alan managed to push it open only to find the rascally fag that had fallen from her lips had already singed a large burn into his new carpet.

Aunty Elsie must have had kittens but that recollection of my ancient Aunty Mary, always makes me smile.

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