Yes, But Where Are You Really From? by Julian Edge
When you opened the front door, you stepped straight from the pavement into what we called “the parlour.” That was kept for best, when distant family or other visitors came. Through that was the other downstairs room, where all the living took place. Not that we ever called it a “living room.” I don’t think we called it anything. That was just home.
My clearest image is of the huge, black, cast-iron fireplace that took up most of one wall, in my memory, anyway. That was called a “range.” It had ovens on both sides of the grate and a big hook to hang a kettle or cauldron on and swing over the coal fire. My mother could remember her mother cooking like that, but in my day the ovens were only used for keeping food warm. Otherwise, the whole apparatus was just something else to keep clean. Ours shone. In one corner of the room was a door to a steep, narrow staircase that led to a tiny landing with my parents’ bedroom on one side and my brother’s and mine on the other.
Back downstairs, there was a tiny extension we called the “back-kitchen.” It had a gas cooker and a cold tap over a Belfast sink. That was the only running water in the house, just as the coal fire was the only source of heat. On Saturday evenings, my mother would boil kettles to fill a tin bath in front of the fire and we’d take turns.
A small brick outhouse in the backyard was our toilet. It had a wooden seat and a high water tank with a long chain. It banged when you pulled it and it flushed like Niagara Falls. There was a hook on the wall for hanging squares of ripped-up Evening Sentinel but, by my time, we had real toilet paper. For winter nights, we had a chamber pot under the bed.
The gate at the bottom of the yard opened into a dirt track we called “the backs,” fenced off from the railway line by a wall of perpendicular sleepers. You walked down the backs till you reached an alley that let you cut through between the houses. The whole terrace belonged to the neighbouring tile company, whose factory chimney loomed over us. Looking up the street at night, the white or golden light shining out across the pavement showed who had electricity and who was still on gas.
When I was eight, our homes were declared “unfit for human habitation.” It was the only time I ever saw my mother angry. “We are poor,” I remember her saying into the face of the Council Inspector, “we are not dirty!” We were re-housed on a Council Estate. Three bedrooms, hot running water, a proper bathroom and two inside toilets. We loved it.
When people ask me, “Where are you from?” that’s what I want to tell them, though I admit it is a very long answer.