Calling Grandma's Bluff
At this point, I have broken from my practice of telling my childhood stories in chronological order. The remaining memories are far less complete and therefore harder to date and set in any kind of context.
In my previous story, Winter Sports, I mentioned in passing that my sister and I had already learned the hard way about our grandmother's skill in tying knots; this story picks up that loose end. Dating it is difficult; it certainly dates from before the events of Christmas 1962, but I am at a loss to say how far before. I know that it was in the long summer school holidays, but summer 1962 and summer 1961 both seem equally likely.
As usual, gaps in my memories are bridged by educated guesswork as necessary and I comment on that a bit more at the end.
One summer, my sister Karen, my brother Timothy and I had an extended stay, possibly as long as two weeks, with our grandparents while our parents were elsewhere. All these years later, the precise nature of 'elsewhere' eludes me. Possibly my father was on a business trip to which my mother had also been invited, as sometimes happened; possibly they were simply taking the opportunity to have a grown-ups-only holiday; conceivably there was some other, quite different and now forgotten reason.
My grandfather was a Church of England parish priest. He was well into his seventies at the time and nearing the end of a long career which had begun as a missionary to China in the years after the First World War. He had met and married my grandmother in China (and both my mother and her older sister were born there). By the time of this story, he was rector of a parish in Sussex, near the south coast of England.
The rectory was a splendid, if slightly shabby, square Georgian building built in ragstone, the pale bluish-grey limestone that typifies much old Kent and Sussex architecture. It was built for a large family and a small army of servants and was thus more than a little oversized for an elderly minister and his wife, tended by a maid who helped out for a few hours each morning. We children loved the rectory; it was a friendly house: old and obviously full of memories and history, exciting without being spooky.
I am fairly sure that we arrived on a Saturday, probably driven there by our parents. On the Sunday, we would have gone to church with our grandparents, staying until after the first hymn and a few words addressed to the children by the Rector (whom we had to remember to address as 'Sir' rather than as 'Granddad' in that context). We would then have joined the other village children in the Sunday School held in the church hall.
After church, there would have been Sunday lunch, probably the traditional English full works with roast beef and all the trimmings. I haven't a clue what the weather really was, but childhood holidays are always warm and sunny in my memories, so we may well have played in the rectory's extensive garden, which was rather overgrown with exciting areas of dense vegetation to hide in.
On Monday morning, Timothy, Karen and I excitedly discussed our ideas for the day over breakfast. I have no idea what they were, but they probably involved going out and exploring the village or the surrounding countryside.
Our planning was cut short by our grandmother announcing, "Housework first; playtime afterwards."
I would have been quite amenable to helping out, but apparently Karen wasn't. "Awww! Do we have to?" she protested in an unpleasantly whiny voice.
Grandma was clearly taken aback by this display of ill temper but replied evenly, "Well, I'd like you to help. There's not much to do and the more hands there are on the jobs, the quicker they will all be done."
"But I don't want to help," Karen retorted with an unpleasant pout.
"Young lady, the household rules are that playtime doesn't start until all the chores are done. If you won't help then you can go to your room and do nothing instead."
"I shall," Karen announced, standing up and flouncing out of the kitchen. "Come on, Becca," she called out as she went.
I was torn between what seemed to be a perfectly reasonable request by our grandmother and loyalty to my sister. Loyalty won and I reluctantly followed my sister out of the kitchen, offering Grandma a sheepish and faintly apologetic shrug as I went. Timothy sat through Karen's outburst and the subsequent departure of his sisters in silence with a faintly bewildered expression on his face.
When I reached the old nursery, which was the room the three of us were using, I found that Karen had flung herself face-down on the double bed that she and I shared. My sister had a somewhat capricious temper which mellowed over the years, but even at the time I remember being embarrassed at her behaviour and thinking it was more typical of a two-year old. I wasn't sure what to do, so I picked up a book and sat down with it to allow time for my sister to cool down.
After about ten minutes, our grandmother came into the bedroom. Karen still showed no sign of emerging from her sulk and I was deeply engrossed in my book.
"Mary has arrived now. Why not come down and help us with the housework?" Grandma offered, her tone conciliatory. (Mary was the 'daily' who came in for a few hours each morning to help with the domestic chores.)
"No," Karen replied without moving, her voice muffled by the bedclothes.
"No," my sister repeated.
I glanced helplessly at my grandmother, my loyalties still confusingly compromised.
"Very well," Grandma said, with a dangerous edge to her voice, then turned and left the room.
I waited for a moment then went over to Karen. "Stop being silly, Grandma is getting really angry."
Karen didn't move and her only reply was an unintelligible grunt.
I was at a loss to know what to do. I considered leaving my sister to her inexplicable sulk and going downstairs to help with the morning's chores, but having already expressed support for her, however misguidedly, I felt that I would be abandoning her if I did so. I wandered across to the window and looked down into the yard below (our room was on the back of the house). My grandmother was talking to Mary, a cheerful middle-aged woman whom I knew from previous visits and rather liked. Knowing that I was also letting Mary down simply increased the burden on my heart. As I watched, Mary disappeared from view as she went into the house through the back door. My grandmother went into the old stable block, now used for garaging, for my grandfather's workshop and for general storage. She emerged a minute or so later, crossing the yard with a purposeful stride and disappeared into the house.
Only a minute or so later Grandma was back in our room with a bundle of rope in her hand. Her intention was obvious and I reflected with dismay that the morning had gone from happy anticipation of the day ahead to a complete disaster in less than half an hour.
"Karen, get up," I hissed. "We're in a lot of trouble."
The obvious panic in my voice roused my sister at last. She turned her head and I saw her eyes widen in fear as she saw the rope in our grandmother's hand and realised what was going to happen.
"I gave you the choice of helping out or doing nothing," Grandma explained, "and 'nothing' means 'nothing', not sitting around here amusing yourselves and reading books." She gestured towards my book, which I had left face-down on the bed next to Karen.
There was a long pause while the words sank in. Karen was now sitting on the edge of the bed and I was standing next to her. Neither of us said anything but just looked up at our grandmother, waiting for her to make the next move.
"I'm going to tie you up," Grandma told us, as if we hadn't guessed already. "I know you're both used to being tied up, so it won't be much of a hardship, and I'm not doing it to punish you. I'm doing it so that you won't be up here playing together while the rest of us work."
There was another pause. I wasn't too sure about this not being a punishment, but the logic, and indeed the justice, of our grandmother's plan was very clear; helping with the housework was optional, but if we didn't help, then we wouldn't be allowed to do anything else either.
"Stand up please, Karen," Grandma instructed.
My sister stood, her chin tipped up at a defiant angle. Grandma dumped her bundle of rope down on the bed, selected a long piece then set to work. She found the middle of it then draped it around Karen's neck, the ends hanging down in front of her. She crossed them in the middle of Karen's chest then wrapped the ends around each of Karen's upper arms about three times. Grandma knotted the rope together in the middle of Karen's back. There was still a considerable length of rope in the free ends which she took around Karen's body knotting them again at the back, so creating a band of rope around her chest at about elbow level. Grandma positioned Karen's arms behind her back so that the forearms were horizontal then used the remaining rope to bind and cinch her wrists. There were still two loose tails of rope each about a foot and a half long. Grandma took these up to the rope running across the nape of Karen's neck and knotted them off to it. This took the pressure off Karen's neck and also made the whole binding much more secure. (In our family, we called this arrangement a 'Chinese tie-up'; I explained the history behind the term in my story 'Winter Sports'.)
Grandma instructed Karen to sit on the edge of the bed then used two shorter lengths of rope to tie her legs together at the ankles and just below the knees, neatly cinching both bindings.
"Now, Rebecca," my grandmother said, turning to me, "are you still going to stand by your sister?"
I realised from the tone of Grandma's voice, which wasn't unkind, that she was offering me a genuine choice. Once again, I was torn between doing what I knew was the right thing in helping my grandmother and maintaining my loyalty to my sister. My knees were shaking and I discovered that my mouth was too dry to reply, so I just nodded. It took only about three or four minutes for my grandmother to tie me up in exactly the same way as my sister.
Along with the ropes, Grandma had brought two pieces of white cloth. I recognised these as muslin nappy (diaper if you will) liners, which we often used as gags in our games at home and it was obvious that this was their intended purpose today. Karen was gagged first, with a broad band of cloth wedged between her teeth and knotted behind her head. My gag followed immediately afterwards.
As Grandma was tying my gag, Karen blinked a message at me. This was a skill we had developed relatively recently. We had both been taught Morse code in the Girl Guides. Our guider (the adult in charge of the Guide company) had told us that Morse could be used in lots of ways, not just with beeps on a radio or flashing lights; you could use flags or wave your arms or blinking. Karen and I were thrilled by this notion and practised 'talking' by blinking at each other. It's actually quite a slow way of sending Morse (we could only achieve about ten words per minute maximum) so we relied heavily on contractions and abbreviations, in much the same way that has evolved for SMS text messages today.
I can't remember what Karen 'said' to me (it was probably just general words of sisterly comfort) but Grandma spotted her doing it. I don't think that our grandmother could read the message or that she even knew that it was Morse code, but she recognised communication taking place when she saw it. She said nothing, but her grunt of disapproval spoke volumes.
Grandma left the room, leaving us sitting side by side on the edge of our bed. Having inadvertently revealed our secret, it was fairly clear what was going to happen next.
"BLNDFLD," Karen signalled to me. I nodded my agreement with her assessment of the situation.
Our fears were confirmed when our grandmother returned carrying two cotton headscarves. Unless she was going somewhere formal, Grandma nearly always wore a headscarf instead of a hat, usually knotted pirate-style at the nape of her neck. She had quite a collection of headscarves, many in bright floral prints and these two were typical examples.
I was expecting the headscarves to be folded into bands and tied over our eyes in the usual way, but instead Grandma dropped a scarf over each of our heads, gathered the four corners of of each scarf together and knotted them at the backs of our necks. In consequence, I found my head enclosed in a loose balloon of coloured fabric. I could see through it to some extent (the outline of the window was quite clear) but any further communication by blinking was of course out of the question.
"I'll let you go when we've finished the housework," Grandma told us as she left the room, closing the door behind her.
Naturally, being the kind of girls we were, my sister and I instinctively explored the possibility of escape. Neither of us was tied to anything, so by sprawling on the bed we were able to manoeuvre ourselves so that we could reach each other's bonds. The problem was that the way we were tied, with our hands passing through the wrist bindings in opposite directions, it was possible for each of us to get the fingers of one hand but not both onto the knots securing the other's ropes. Grandma's knots were small and tight: completely impossible to loosen one-handed.
We also discovered that unlike a conventional blindfold, the arrangement we were both wearing was completely immune against any attempt to rub it off against something. There was nothing to do but to wait out our term of enforced idleness.
Eventually our grandmother returned and freed us. She informed us that, as far as she was concerned, that was the end of the matter. We had elected not to help with the chores, so she had made sure we didn't do anything else either; the chores were now finished, so we could get on with the rest of the day.
Timothy had witnessed the showdown with Grandma and had wisely decided to help with the morning's chores. He was concerned to know that we were all right and anxious to hear every scary detail of what had happened to us.
The following morning, Tuesday, Karen was in a rebellious mood again. When we got up, she told me that she wasn't planning to do her share of household chores that day either. Once again, I was faced with a conflict between my desire to help around the house, which I knew was the right thing to do, and loyalty to my sister. Loyalty won out again.
I didn't give any indication of what my sister and I were wearing on the Monday morning of our initial show of disobedience. The fact is that I don't remember. It was summer, so we were likely to be wearing cotton dresses or t-shirts and skirts. (T-shirt and shorts would also be possible, but I generally preferred a skirt to shorts unless I was doing something like tree-climbing that really demanded shorts.)
On the Tuesday, at Karen's suggestion, we each added a pair of tights and a sweater to our outfits, which suggests that the ropes had been uncomfortable on unprotected skin the previous day. (Although it was summer, we had both brought a few warm clothes with us as well: English summers can be a little unpredictable, after all.) I think we also took a pair of socks each to protect our wrists.
We went down for breakfast. Nothing was said about the day's household tasks until after breakfast. I felt uncomfortable and nervous about the confrontation that would undoubtedly follow. I didn't eat much and was uncharacteristically silent through the meal.
In the event, Grandma simply assumed that we knew the score and asked Karen whether she intended to help with the morning's chores. My sister replied with a simple "No." Once again, I discovered that my voice had deserted me so I simply nodded my head to show that I was in support of my sister.
"Well, we need to strip the beds today," Grandma announced, "so I'd better tie you up down here."
Our grandmother proceeded to tie us to two of the kitchen chairs. These were the upright wooden chairs I have mentioned before, the ones with the small hymn book shelf under the seat testifying to their original use as church furniture. I don't really remember the details of how she tied us, which suggests that it wasn't anything unusual. The standard chair-tie that we generally used consisted of wrists crossed and tied behind the chair, also tied to a coil of rope at waist level going around the chair back, another coil of rope around upper arms, chest and chair and another over the lap and under the chair seat. Finally our legs would be tied to the chair legs at ankle and knee level.
I do remember that our gags were muslin nappy liners, as before, and that just before she was gagged, my sister asked if we could have proper blindfolds. Grandma acceded to her request and blindfolded us with cotton headscarves again, but folded into a band in the usual way.
"You still have a mutiny on your hands then?" Mary commented as she came into the kitchen to ask my grandmother for her instructions for the morning.
I knew that I was in the wrong and I was deeply ashamed of myself and horribly embarrassed.
Grandma untied us after the chores that we should have been helping with were all done. (We had probably been tied up a little over an hour.) I skulked around trying to avoid Mary, who still had a few more tasks to do before she was finished for the morning. I felt bad about letting my grandmother down but somehow it was a lot worse to have someone outside the family know I had done it and to have seen the humiliation of my punishment. Later on, when I had the chance to get Grandma on her own, I apologised for my behaviour. She reassured me that she understood the dilemma I had been in and explained that it was a dilemma I had to resolve myself.
On Wednesday, Karen and I again added sweaters and tights to our usual t-shirts and skirts. I had already decided that I was going to help with the chores that morning, but didn't want to start the day by having a row with my sister before we had even left our bedroom.
I was nervous again at breakfast time, but this time in anticipation of my sister's reaction when she learned that I was no longer supporting her rebellion.
Eventually Grandma's inevitable question arrived. Karen replied with a simple and definite "No."
"I'll help," I replied in a very small voice when Grandma asked me the same question.
"Well, I think your first job is to tie your sister to her chair," Grandma told me.
"Becca!" Karen exclaimed, taken aback by my treachery. "I thought you weren't going to do chores either. It's really not fair not telling me you'd changed your mind."
It was true that it hadn't been fair of me not to warn her, but I had thought she might try to change my mind back again if I did. I wasn't sure what how to reply to that criticism, so I said nothing.
There was a long pause in which Karen seemed to expect me to say something in my own defence. As I kept quiet, she finally broke the silence herself. "Better get on and tie me up then," she snapped.
"Maybe you should start by gagging her if she's going to be like that," my grandmother recommended.
I took Grandma's advice and used applied of the two clean nappy liners that were laid out ready for use on recalcitrant grandchildren. Tying Karen to her chair almost certainly followed our standard pattern. I'm not at all sure if I actually remember that part of the incident in detail or if it's just blurred with all the other occasions I tied my sister to a chair. I probably began by making sure the socks she wore over her hands were well pulled up over the sleeves of her sweater then crossed her wrists behind her back and tied them together with both vertical and horizontal turns. I would have tied her back to the chair with several turns of rope around her waist and then more around her arms and chest just above her elbows. In both cases, I would have made sure the rope was looped through the structure of the chair-back. The loose tails of the wrist binding would have been attached to the waist rope and possibly also to the chest rope. Karen's legs would have been tied back to the chair legs at ankles and knees, possibly also going over the tops of her knees. I may well also have applied a coil of rope over her lap (we didn't always bother with that as it added little to the security of the tie-up).
"Do I need to blindfold her?" I asked Grandma.
"Well she's on her own, so she can't blink at anyone," came the reply, so I left Karen's eyes uncovered.
"Only one mutineer today then," Mary commented as she arrived through the back door.
Grandma divided the workforce into two teams. Timothy was paired up with her while I went with Mary. It was immediately obvious that between them my grandmother and Mary had worked out a very efficient pattern of tasks for each day. I don't remember exactly what was involved that day but it would have been some combination of cleaning the bathroom, dusting, vacuuming and general tidying. Grandma and Mary did most of the actual physical work while Timothy and I did the associated fetching and carrying and the lifting and moving of things while they were cleaned beneath or behind. It was quite satisfying to work in such a thorough and methodical way and (I had to admit to myself) surprisingly enjoyable.
My immediate regret was that I had not blindfolded my sister as I had to endure her looking daggers at me every time my duties took me through the kitchen. It somewhat dampened the bounce I had in my step as I dashed through the jobs I had been entrusted with. However, after a while, I noticed Karen looking more and more dejected as she sat out her imprisonment and she no longer caught my eye.
Apart from jobs like loading the washing machine (Grandma had a rather primitive top-loader) and doing the ironing, both of which were one-person jobs that Mary preferred not to delegate, everything else was finished in a little under an hour. Timothy and I were dismissed with thanks and Grandma suggested that I waste no time in releasing Karen.
When I returned to her, Karen's face was red and tear-streaked. As I removed her gag and freed her, she collapsed sobbing into my arms. I really wasn't at all sure how to cope so I sent Timothy to fetch our grandmother.
It was quite hard to understand what Karen was saying, but, between sobs, she explained that she realised how selfish she had been as she saw me not only enthusiastically helping with the chores but also clearly enjoying it. She had felt more and more alone and ashamed of herself as she sat there watching. Unreserved apologies followed, both to Grandma and to me.
Our grandmother congratulated Karen on learning a lesson and on being mature enough to acknowledge it, but insisted that it was all over and that we were to think no more of it but to go and enjoy the rest of our day.
Needless to say, on the Thursday we all helped with the household chores and had them finished in record time.
My grandmother remained adamant that what she did wasn't punishing us but merely imposing on us the logical outcome of our own choices. It certainly taught us to consider carefully all the possible consequences of our actions.
Grandma's unconventional and robust approach to discipline was fairly drastic even by the standards of the time but not totally unacceptable as it would be today. (Also don't forget that Karen and I were used to being tied up, usually from choice, so that in itself wasn't a punishment.) It seemed to work for us and instilled the intended message, probably more through accurately-applied psychology than because of the physical sanctions she used.
On reading through what I have written, it's apparent that the thoughts and feelings I have expressed are more my adult assessment of the events seen in retrospect than a true representation of how I felt at the time, but with the passage of time, the two are hopelessly entangled.
My sister and I both agree with the basic facts as I have described them, although our memories of some details differ. (I have gone with my version in most cases as that's the version I remember living through, or at least think that I do). However, neither of us can account for why Karen's behaviour was quite so uncharacteristically awful those few days.