In my next life, I will live above a pub in a village near the sea, in the North East of England. I will speak with the Northerner’s accent of my grandmother and when I’m called Geordie, I won’t bristle as she did, though our people were miners in the coal pits of Durham.
Afternoons I’ll stop downstairs, join the weekday regulars — pensioners, mostly — as they solve the world’s problems, the men holding court behind pints of stout while the women sip Harvey’s Bristol Cream from delicate, cut-crystal glasses. I’ll strain to hear the guttural, phlegmatic dialect of my childhood, the one so thick no one outside the family could understand it, and when it comes, as it sometimes will, I’ll feel it sting somewhere deep inside my chest.
On Sunday morning, if the weather’s fair, I’ll take my newspaper to the bench in the churchyard, pretend to read as I watch and listen to parishioners huddled outside, catching up on the week’s news before filing inside. I’ll sit and read while I wait, (my hypocrisy goes only so far), the vicar’s booming voice occasionally reaching me across the ancient headstones.
As the church empties, a friend or acquaintance will approach and invite me home for Sunday lunch. Sometimes it will be an elegantly dressed woman with a posh accent, doing her Christian duty for the poor heathen who lives alone above the pub, and I’ll spend the afternoon sipping milky tea from a fragile china cup, amid stiff furniture in a barely-used sitting room, doilies covering every bare surface.
But more often it will be the harried parents of a large brood and we’ll march two miles to a cramped council house at the edge of the village. I’ll drink tea the colour of tar from a chipped mug until the youngest — a toddler in a sagging nappy — crawls uninvited into my lap. I’ll coo politely over the wee bairn then hand him back when his father swaps my tea for a can of lager. Later, we’ll dine on roast beef and Yorkshire pudding and the gravy will taste like home.
On warm evenings, I’ll climb the narrow stairs past the landlord’s flat and out onto the roof. I’ll have a comfortable chair up there, with a small table for my ashtray. I’ll smoke hand-rolled cigarettes and drink brown beer, watching the grey sea roll in the distance. I’ll imagine a ship and a trans-Atlantic journey in a distant past, a young family emigrating to an unknown country, lured by the promise of work in a place where sheets are still clean when they come in from the line.
Only the new town on the new continent is called Cumberland and the new job is in another mine full of Northerner accents. The clean sheets are still grey and the lungs of the young father of two are still black when he dies.
He was thirty-one when he passed, my grandmother just twenty-four at the time.
But it’s another life and I live above a pub in a village near the sea, in the North East of England. And when you call her Geordie my grandmother will not correct you, she’ll only smile and sip her sherry, eyes twinkling through the smoke of her hand-rolled cigarette.