Neil Holmes has previously written about his childhood in Cowbit in the 1950s. His latest reminiscence is a humorous look back at his Aunt Nell’s karsi.
Few things implant themselves indelibly on the memory of a child more than the experience of fear, excitement or great affection.
Such was the traumatic memory of going to Aunt Nell’s toilet which forever became etched on my memory in my childhood years.
Nell and Fred lived in a smallish early Victorian farmhouse perched beside the main road from Spalding to Crowland in a hamlet called Peakhill, a collection of about 15 farmsteads and houses. There was no hill apparent, certainly no ‘peak’... only a vast expanse of flat fenland spread out in every direction under the over-arching sky.
A herd of 20 or so Friesian cows along with 50 acres of arable farmland provided their income. Fred’s brothers, Ambrose and George, worked on the farm and lodged in the house.
The house had two rooms downstairs, one for living in, and one for ‘best’, plus a generous stone-floored pantry with cold water tap. A brown varnished door from the living room opened directly on to the stairs and you had to walk through one bedroom to get to the next. It was said that on at least one occasion it had been so cold that the chamber pot froze over.
By the mid-1950s the black-leaded range had been taken out and Nell cooked on an electric cooker – their only token of modernity (besides the nine inch television which took five minutes to warm up and the green 1950 Riley 2.5 four-door saloon in the side-barn). However, there was no kitchen as such and everything was prepared on the large farmhouse table that could seat eight people with ample elbow room, and also had room for four sheep dogs underneath which eagerly undertook to eat any scraps of food handed down to them.
What an attraction for two young brothers of six and seven: cats, dogs, cows, chickens, mud, manure heaps, haystacks, barns, tractors, a working carthorse, a dairy – even a fading snooker table in a dilapidated greenhouse! Brother Ian shot ‘spuggies’, or sparrows, with his .22 air rifle, I collected the eggs and dug in the chicken run with a spade so the hens could gobble down worms and scratch all day long. A boys’ summer holiday dreamland!
Aunt Nell was renowned as the finest Yorkshire pudding maker in all of Christendom, the undisputed queen of the batter. At 11.30 on the dot, every day, bar Sunday, Fred, Ammy and George would present themselves at the house from work, where Fred would stand by the back door, receive a large willow-pattern cup of tea from Nell, and gingerly tip it in to his saucer, and slurp it down – usually in one go. Farming was thirsty work. Sat down inside, there followed the ritual of Aunt Nell’s ‘rolling hills’ Yorkshire pudding with gravy for the men; after that came the meat, potatoes and veg; the remnants of gravy were mopped up with a slice of bread and any remaining droplets were lifted from the plate and consumed with Fred’s long flexible table knife. Aunt Nell was the only person I ever knew who cut bread holding the loaf under her arm; there was not room enough for a bread-board on the table. On the same plate, Spotty Dick or treacle pudding with copious amounts of custard was served. More tea. No conversation. With a grunt the men got up, sated, and went back to work; Nell washed the dirty pots up in a bowl on the table.
Of course, all this food had its knock-on effect: you MIGHT just have to use the original, one-of-a-kind, rudimentary, outside, early-Victorian vault lavatory. Young knees trembled at the merest thought of any movement of the bowels; an enforced visit would fill you with fear.
The dreaded karsi lay a short distance from the back door: a compact outhouse, perhaps 4 feet x 4 feet, made of red brick, in poor condition, with orange pantiles balanced precariously on top. The door, with its small frosted-glass window, was always slightly ajar and there was enough light able to come in to make sure you knew which way to exit in case of an attack of asphyxiation. If you ever paused by the half-open door in summer there was always the endless, “Zzzzzz...” of a droning bluebottle fly to remind you that this was flies’ number one attraction in these parts.
“I’ve got to go,” I said to Ian. “I need to, it’s getting bad.” I grimaced, crossed my legs, and tightened my buttocks, giving me extra time to think of an escape plan. “Let’s go up to Aunt Hilda’s: her’s flushes with water!” Aunt Hilda was Nell’s sister; their farmstead was 400 yards down the road.
“They’re out, they’ve gone to market,” said Ian. “No chance.”
“I’m getting desperate!” I stuttered.
Ian shrugged his shoulders, then pointed his thumb at the mother of all toilets.
Gripping my knees and taking a deep breath I ventured inside. I looked at the rusty nail on the wall and the torn up pages of the Farmers’ Weeklies and local newspapers that served as toilet paper; the bluebottle buzzed more vigorously, and I pulled down my shorts and pants. I was trying to avoid looking down because there, eight feet below the circular hole in the smooth bleached board that generations of people had sat on, lay a daunting brick vault, a chasm of semi-darkness host to a languid pile of ageing excrement: a hundred years of poo, motions, movements, in every shade of brown, all festooned with quarter pages of The Farmers’ Weekly, A5 sized pieces of the Lincolnshire Free Press and soggy, torn sheets of historic issues of the Spalding Guardian.
I positioned myself carefully, fearful I might slip through the man-sized hole, by bracing myself with my frail rigid arms by my side. Holding my breath I pushed with every abdominal muscle known to man and boy to shorten the visiting time. I finally gulped in the air, but that only made things worse. I was choking! “Sod the paper!” I thought, yanking up my trousers and holding them up with one hand while clawing vigorously to open the door with the other. I fell out of the confines of that tiny room like a submariner rising to the surface of the sea from his stricken vessel and about to breathe his last.
“Let’s go home!” I spluttered, and we headed back to Cowbit.
Fred, Ammy and George walked up from the fields, their day’s work done; Hilda and Wilf were just back from the market and unlocking their back door; Ian kept muttering, “I told you so”, and, “Serves you right”.
Neil was keeping well down-wind of Ian as well as keeping a healthy distance from all other sentient beings.