Jonathan Raban to grandmother's house

…When my mother had enough petrol coupons, we’d drive to Granny’s house in Sheringham, a long ride of nearly twenty miles. The narrow, twisting road ran past Little Snoring and on to Holt, where we often stopped to break the journey and look in shop windows. Then, from a wooded ridge, the land below us was rimmed with the mysterious sea. Here my mother switched the engine off and let AUP 595 coast downhill. For a mile or more, there was just the sound of the wind, the rustle of tyres on gravel, the creaking of the chassis, as the car submitted to the gravitational pull of Granny’s house. My mother had enlisted as an ambulance driver early in the war and never missed an opportunity to save petrol. She allowed the car to come almost to a standstill before switching the ignition back on and letting out the clutch, so that it restarted with a series of bone-shaking jerks and a roar. Or it didn’t. When it stalled at the bottom of the hill, my mother would get out and, to ‘save the battery’, effortfully swing the crank handle.

Granny’s house stood several streets short of the sea, up a sloping cul-de-sac. Past the gate, one had to climb a crazy-paving path flanked on either side by a rock garden of lavender and alpine plants. With its small bow-windowed drawing room at the front and whitewashed pebbledash, the house, I see now, was a very modest example of 1930s suburban bijou, but then I thought it grand and magical. Granny in the doorway, looking slightly top-heavy with her bosomy torso balanced on girlishly slender legs, dogs yapping behind her, smelled of eau de cologne and cigarettes. In every room there were open boxes of cork-tipped Craven A’s, the cigarettes nestling, close-packed, in their pillar-box red containers with the black cat logo. To me, Granny’s cigarettes were a sign of extraordinary opulence in the wartime world of shortages and rations.

On these visits, my mother would accept a cigarette when Granny offered, but anyone could see that she was an amateur smoker, breathing in and puffing out between coughs. Granny, though, was a professional: she could convey deep meditation with a drag, dismiss an argument with an exhalation, draw a protective veil of smoke around herself and deliver an oracular remark from behind it, extinguish a conversation and a cigarette in one gesture. She was a study in the rhetoric of smoking. She also had the fascinating knack of blowing smoke rings, for me only, when she was in the mood.

She had just turned fifty. Every expedition to see her was a treat for me, if a rather scary one, for Granny was the first person I knew to maintain a visible disconnect between what she said and how she really felt. Extravagant daily labour went into her appearance – the greying permed hair, the rouge and powder, the scent, the afternoon rests taken in her darkened bedroom, from which she emerged freshly dressed and in a new and unpredictable mood, along with her dogs, a pair of miniature Yorkshire terriers named Timmy and Charles who slept at her feet. Granny was a creature of artifice, and though she was always smiling, one couldn’t trust her smiles because there was often something wicked to be glimpsed behind them…