“Who the dickens ‘Boz’ could be
Puzzled many a learned elf,
Till time unveiled the mystery,
And ‘Boz’ appeared as Dickens’s self.”
Bentley’s Miscellany March 1837
It was from my maternal grandmother I learned about the daily constitutional.
Nowadays, we have exercise, physical activity, wear wristbands that count steps and monitor heart rate. Our health programmed into our day as we would programme a washing machine or a microwave.
I prefer constitutional. It is a powerful word. It implies health and well being. A natural action which is an intrinsic part of the day.
In the late 1950’s, I used to stay with Gran Mayo during school holidays. She was an avid reader and introduced me to Dickens, Ngaio Marsh, Agatha Christie, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Arthur Upton, Dorothy L Sayers, P G Wodehouse, Silas Hocking (his book Her Benny about poverty in Liverpool is vivid still) and so many other writers, Sketches by Boz, the Egyptians, Howard Carter, Gilbert and Sullivan, and the Willow Pattern.
A novel sat on her book rest at the table and she read during meals. I followed suit. My friend was a dictionary. At tea time, we’d listen to the wireless, then go for our evening constitutional. She’d lock her front door and walk at a brisk pace down the path. We crossed the road in a straight line. Little traffic to worry about but we kept our ears tuned for the rattle of the tram, and I’d skip over the tram lines. The trams rolled down that road and under the bridge almost toppling over.
Once on the opposite side, we strolled the length of the Anfield cemetery wall along Walton Lane to its entrance at the junction of Priory Road. A clocktower, I think, stood between two sets of gates, and beyond those, two houses either side of the main path. Once through the large metal gates, Gran wound her way on familiar paths, comforted by dead relatives, departed friends and others killed during the wars. Neighbours nodded or stopped for a few words. It was a community activity.
She left me to make my own trail. I skipped along straight paths. Used the scent of the roses to guide me. Stopped to read the monuments or greet the pungent musk of freshly dug earth heaped on a hessian sack. I always kept her in sight.
During one evening constitutional, at a large patch of unused land, she said, “I want to be buried here. Opposite my house.” I could only see the top of the roof and a red brick chimney above the perimeter wall.
Because it was the holidays, Gran allowed me to stay up late. She entertained me by playing one of her eight musical instruments. In return, I amused her by failing at the harmonica or scraping the viola. Some evenings, I danced to 33 rpm records playing on a phonograph with a brass trumpet through which tinny sound came. Nipper the dog chased its tail around the turntable spindle. I’d run to rewind the device when it slowed.
Gran melted old records, moulded them into frilled bowls. They hung from chains hooked to the ceiling, a potted Tradescantia overflowing the sides. A modern industry in melted record objects exists today.
At other times, we’d continue to listen to the radio. Or play whist for farthings. Or I’d play solitaire or Chinese checkers while she did chores.
I shared Gran’s bed in the front room overlooking the cemetery tucked under crisp cotton, a candlewick bedspread, and lying on what seemed like a dozen pillows, with the smell of mothballs, and lavender surrounding me. Light shone through the thin curtains. As a car approached, I’d try to guess from which direction it came. Its headlight would beam across the ceiling from left to right, or right to left.
Sometime between 1958 and 1962, the authorities built a police station on her favourite plot of land. In 1960’s Liverpool, council was on a mission to demolish slums and build new towns. Gran was hustled into a fourth floor flat in Huyton. Away from her beloved house, and the friends and neighbours she drew close to during the war years. She still had her evening constitutional, though.
I never considered what she thought about the building. Her disappointment. She died in 1967 and is buried in the same cemetery we did our evening constitutionals. I believe she isn’t far from her chosen spot but I can’t be sure. Her house still stands.