At the start of Cuckoo Song, Triss is recovering after falling into the 'Grimmer', an old mill pond near the cottage where her family are on holiday. Behind the curtain of ancient willows the Grimmer broods, its depths unknown, its history stained by witch-duckings…
The Grimmer exists.
The ominously named pond can be found in the pretty Suffolk village of Wickham Skeith. It used to be called the 'grim mere', but over time its name distorted, as place names so often do.
I first heard of the Grimmer from my mother's stories of her own mother, who had lived in Wickham Skeith as a child. My grandmother died before I was born, but through my mother's recollections I can piece together much of her story. My grandmother's family were poor (she was sometimes so hungry that, on the way to school, she would dig turnips out of the farmer's fields and eat them raw) but it sounds as if she was happy in her country village.
Then, one day, when she was out playing with the other kids on the edge of the Grimmer, something happened that changed her life.
She didn't fall into the Grimmer, or anything of that sort. Instead, she was called in by her parents… and told that she was to go into service.
She would immediately be sent far away from her family and village. She would live with strangers, work painfully long hours, wear a uniform, and send home as much money as she could spare. She was thirteen years old.
My grandmother was whisked from her sleepy little village into the very heart of smoky, seething London, to skivvy for a Lyons Corner House. Fortunately she was cheerful, strong-willed and nobody's doormat.
“Don't you talk to me like that!” she told her employer once, when she was pushed too far. “Or I'll fetch my hat and my coat and I'll go!” This took guts, since my grandmother was a particularly small teenager in the middle of a strange city, and didn't have anywhere else to go. Her defiance paid off, however. Her employer backed down, because my grandmother was really good at her job, and nobody wanted to lose her.
She was so good at it, in fact, that she started to 'work her way up'. By the time she became a young woman, she had been made manager of an entire restaurant.
One fine day, the sleepy peace of Wickham Skeith was torn asunder by the ragged roar of an engine. It was a motorcycle, a rare sight in those times, and the locals were shocked and scandalised to see that it was being ridden by a young woman.
My grandmother had come home.
* * * * *
Cuckoo Song is not my grandmother's story, but she lurks behind it, here and there. You can find her in Violet's motorcycle, the teashops, the teenagers who work for a living and the Grimmer itself. These are small doffs of the hat to the grandmother I never knew. I only wish I had.
[Note: this is not a picture of my grandmother, but I imagine her something like this. I don't know where this image comes from originally – if anyone does, please let me know and I'll credit it appropriately.]