Mrs. Buck and the Exploding Ginger Beer
By Margaret Malloch Zielinski
When I was a student in England during the fifties, all my landladies seemed bizarre, but the one I remember most vividly, and fondly, was Mrs. Buck.
Mrs. Buck was a dear old soul and an ardent Communist: she embraced Communism with the same uncritical enthusiasm with which she welcomed her lodgers. She kept a life-size portrait of Lenin in her sitting room, against whose wall was a large table laid perpetually, Mrs. Haversham style, with the dried, calcified remains of some long ago soiree. Every Thursday night the local Communist Society met there and in my bed-sitting room below I would hear the stamp of feet and the faint chorus of some rousing march. At Christmas she sent me a card with a procession of skeletons marching across the front. On their shoulders they were carrying a black coffin with CAPITALISM painted across its side. Underneath was printed Happy Christmas!
Mrs. Buck lived with her brother, Fred, who had no legs. He had two artificial ones which he hated wearing, and he avoided doing so about the home, preferring to swing about on his stumps. The house, being old and narrow and on four floors, had a narrow winding, windowless staircase. I never got used to feeling my way up in the dark to meet a legless torso thumping his way down from step to step for a late night cup of cocoa.
Like most houses of its era, the kitchen was in the basement, a dark ill-lit cavern. The only light came from a dangling bulb swathed in a heavily tasseled plum-colored shade which swung slowly backwards and forwards over the table, sending strange grotesque shadows to the murky corners of the room. Here Mr. Buck, who was blind, spent most of his days in the company of the family cat, a large tabby. Mr. Buck would sit at the table eating his meals out of a large roasting pan; the tabby at his elbow would be daintily licking from the same dish. He was a well-fed cat.
It was Mrs. Buck’s habit after she’d made a good fry up, a daily occurrence, to put the greasy frying pan on the floor for the tabby to lick clean. Then it would go back on the stove for the next meal. I tried not to visit the kitchen too often and when I did, I was thankful for its dim lighting.
Mrs. Buck loved to make ginger beer, she produced vast quantities of it, and being short of storage space, she kept most of it on a long row of shelves under the window in my room. Unfortunately she hadn’t got the corking procedure down quite right, and so every so often I would shoot out of bed at what seemed to be the sound of rifle fire, as one bottle after another exploded. This added considerably to the excitement of my first attempts at sex with my nervous boyfriend, who, over the course of the relationship, became ever more nerve-wracked as each of his clumsy attempts at lovemaking were met by a hail of gunfire. It certainly dampened his ardor then, and Heaven knows what regrettable effects it may have had on his later love life.
But everything, even suffering, is relative I realized when, each vacation, I was expected to go to Glasgow to spend time with my grandmother. Like my father, my grandmother was a dour Scot who believed life was grim, and that whatever you did, the main thing was not to enjoy it. Fortunately when visiting her that was not difficult.
The only warm room was the kitchen. My grandmother had a vast cast-iron stove almost filling one wall. Here there was always some hellish brew bubbling over the fire. Usually it was boiled mutton. This literally was boiled mutton, big vats of greasy, grey water with fatty lumps of ancient sheep floating sadly on the surface. Nothing else, no onions, no carrots, not even salt and pepper. It was served in vast white soup dishes. Forcing this down was an experience not for the faint of heart.
Hanging on the wall above the kitchen table was a murky painting of some doleful highland cattle, damned forever to huddle together, shivering in some frigid gale. They only added to the general ambiance of suffering. After a week I couldn’t wait to return to the genial Mrs. Buck’s – exploding ginger beer, legless torsos, chorusing Communists and all.