Part 1. of submissions for the February writing challenge:
A memory from early childhood
I am posting the submissions in group`s of up to 10 (in no particular order) to aid reading and review. I hope you enjoy them. If possible it would be useful if you could read some of the submissions, provide constructive feedback to the author and make any general comments over on our Facebook page. If you comment below, please tag the author and title. Constructive feedback welcome either here or contact them direct via the Facebook group.
Sarah Eno – Wildness
I went to lots of different primary schools, probably about twelve, because we moved our caravans to whatever job was on the books. Steeple Bumstead, such a great name and where we lived in a field which had a little timid white bull. My parents, stepdad and mother were ‘woodsmen’ not foresters because there weren’t forests in East Anglia. They worked with hardwood trees, planting and felling, taking timber for fuel and possibly crafts, cropping small wood for wood-fired bakers’ ovens, hazel for hurdles and oak bark for tanning. There were trips taking cricket bat willow to Bungay with dad singing a bit of Beethovens’ choral symphony on the way. This is mid 1950’s in eastern England where wood products still played a vital role in food, fun and building. Sustainability that we’d give our eye-teeth for now.
We had one proper big white modern caravan and one wee one towed behind the lorry and tractor and we usually lived by a river. It was out sight and we could run about naked, wash and play in the river and take the punt for water and maybe other supplies. My brother and I almost always walked to school across fields. When I was nearly ten we were going to Haslingfield school which lay at the foot of a hill, one side of which was being removed by a cement making factory and the other side grew plums, damsons and apples for Chivers jam factory about 15 miles away. In the summer holidays everyone went and picked for pay. I was an ace picker and still am, as if I was all hands and fingers, grasping the plump pink juicy Victorias or the firm purple Pershores. The fruit got a nice chalky bloom from the cement making, which we took in as part of our calcium rations.
That walk to school crossed the river Cam over a rather lovely old wooden footbridge and I’d occasionally strip off for a swim. And because we always lived in deep countryside I started collecting, naming and pressing wild flowers or eating some of the wild plants on the way. My best find was Deadly Nightshade (Belladonna perennis) growing near that bridge, whose juice I later learnt, was used to make ladies eyes look large. But I knew enough not to eat those big black fruits!
We did have a bit of rough treatment from school mates calling us names and throwing things at us. But once our big handsome dad appeared it all went quiet. A bit later dad was travelling to the east coast of Essex for some contract work, I think on Mersey Island. So we three children under ten and my mum, managed this very basic life, no main waters or electricity but gas for lighting and cooking, and no washing machine. I slept then on my own, in the little ex-army caravan, and used to nip out to stick my finger in the tub of powered malt that my mum used for beer brewing. It was kept under the van. I could smell a brewing day as I walked home, by the aroma of burning sugar.
Then one day we were told at school, to go the the Baker family who lived another 2 miles further on. When we got there it seemed that dad had had an accident while travelling to work on the motorbike. Mum had gone to Colchester because he was in hospital. We never saw him again, only the jumper in a pile that they’d had to cut to take off him. Sixty years later and I still cry a bit. But that’s grief, you never really get over it and it’s alright, it just the way it is.
Jean Faugier – 15 Minutes of fame
North West England was very rarely referred to as exciting in my childhood and certainly not in 1959. The epoch of the Mersey beat and the swinging sixties were still only figments of some music entrepreneurs’ imaginations. Winter, and November in particular, could certainly add to the gloom, holding none of the promise of December for us children. What we faced was day after day of leaving home for school in the dark, just like our coal mining forebears left for the pit. Combine the dreary weather with the tyranny at school and at times, it felt like being trapped in a Dickens novel : forced feeding of clearly inedible fare and threats of damnation for refusing food African children would welcome was commonplace. “Then they can have it” came the frequent response from tearful miscreants sitting for what seemed like lifetimes in front of lumpy mashed potatoes or sodden cabbage. This went along with having to dodge the attention of frankly deranged and violent teachers who thought nothing of launching the board duster at someone’s head or, in the case of the geography teacher, using his hooked cane to grab an unsuspecting child by the neck to be dragged in shame from his or her seat and humiliated in front of an audience of peers…
Only one thing, one huge thing, could quite literally brighten the darkness of those days : nothing less than a massively important competition provided by the arrival of … Bonfire Night ! The race was on to ensure that our neighbourhood bonfire was the largest around.
This festival of light in the darkness was marked by the burning of our carefully created effigy supposed to represent Guy Fawkes although in no way did it resemble him apart from looking as though it was made in the same century. The incineration of a Spanish expat Yorkshire man who had been exploited and deceived by the English elite needed real effort, we thought. Guy Fawkes was found under the Houses of Parliament at midnight on the 4th November 1605 next to 36 barrels of gunpowder and holding a large box of matches. He was clearly not the sharpest knife in the drawer. As all Northerners could have predicted, his posh Southern associates had other engagements that evening.
And so, in keeping with the children’s rhyme which urged us to «remember, remember the 5th of November», it followed that each year the Novembers of our childhood were enlightened by a huge conflagration to celebrate religious intolerance and the hanging, drawing and quartering of poor Guy or Guido as he liked to be called on his Spanish passport.
But for us, the main idea was to have more wood on our bonfire than the kids down the road. And we knew where to get it. I am unsure now with the passage of time which of our merry band of brigands made up of two boys and three girls, all around 12-13 years of age, came up with the plan, but I would like to think it was me. We reasoned that the private estate lying almost adjacent to our homes had so many trees there was no way they could miss a few that had blown down in storms. The local intelligence or word on the street was the house and land were owned by some Lord or other but the local Council was negotiating to buy it for the Town. As the sons and daughters of good Labour party voters, we figured the wood we sought was in some ways almost ours already : property was theft, we had heard; well, where was the harm in liberating a few dead logs ?
Climbing over the walls was easy and only incurred a couple of scraped knees and one item of ripped clothing. Once in, we took the time to explore : after all, we had all day, there was no need to rush. Even in early November, the space was quite enchanting : mature trees still in Autumn colours, overgrown shrubberies and copses which seemed like secret places and, most amazing of all, a lake of quite impressive size. This unexpected feature drew all of us magnetically as only water can draw children and we were able to walk on some sort of drainage pipes which went a little way out . Balancing like the gymnast Olga Corbett, the games were great fun and our mission to liberate the wood was forgotten in the laughter and excitement which came with risk.
Eventually, the chill of the day and pangs of hunger called us home and we started to leave the lake and return to our original quest. As we retraced our steps, we were surprised by a young man with a friendly smile and a large camera. He told us he had seen how excellent we were at balancing on the drainage pipes above the lake, and could we just do that again while he took some photographs as it looked so impressive, he said. These days, children would probably ask questions but we saw no reason to, just as our parents saw no reason to stop us being out and about most of the day. And so we posed and posed and he snapped and snapped and eventually, having taken enough photos, he asked if we knew we were trespassing. «You really should leave» he said «you would not want to get in any trouble».
Concerned by his warning, we quickly raced each other back to the estate walls, not without first ensuring we threw over as many logs and bits of trees as we could before dragging them to add to our massive construction for the celebrations on the 5th. Happy in the certain knowledge we had outdone our local rivals, we went to bed tired and satisfied.
The local newspaper or Rag arrived two mornings later and the screams of our mothers could probably be heard in the next town. There on the front page were we, all five of us, huge silly smiles on our faces, balanced on the pipes crossing the lake. The headline read : CHILDREN RISK LIVES IN DANGEROUS BEAUTY SPOT. Some of us did not make bonfire night that year, and the Council made sure the lake was filled in.
Jillian Streichert – ´´An Early Childhood Memory´´
The day started off as any other school day. Four days after my 9th birthday, to be exact. When you’re that young, the only true way of measuring time is counting down to or from your birthday, Christmas and summer vacation.
It was time for reading circle, all of us sitting neatly on the thin maroon colored rug, indicating that it was time for us to be quiet while the teacher was taking her place to start us on our next adventure.
“Katie Miller, to be picked up for early dismissal” echoed the intercom. Katie, looking confused, stands up from the hard floor. Maybe she had a dentist’s appointment that she had forgotten about?
“Oh man! You’re so lucky!!!!” The class groaned in unison. Katie shuffles along and collects her bookbag, smiling, on her way to the office as the teacher finds her page before she was so rudely interrupted by the intercom.
“Jennifer Smith, for early dismissal” booms the intercom again.
“WHAT?!” The class screams jealously. Jennifer ecstatic because she has been one of the lucky chosen ones. She skips out as she waves to the class mockingly.
The phone rings on the private line to the classroom. The teacher sighs as she lazily makes her way to the other side of the classroom to pick up the phone with the long curly cord. “Hello?” She answers the phone, annoyed. Indistinct murmurs can be slightly heard coming through the other end when her face twists and tightens. “I see” she says and slowly hangs up the phone, not saying anything with a blank stare.
Instantly after, one right after another, my fellow classmates are being pulled from the class for early dismissal. I sat on that maroon carpet, all my fingers crossed behind my back, hoping that my name would be called.
“Jillian Streichert for early dismissal´´
“YES!” I thought! Success! It worked! I collected my bookbag that was two sizes too big and ran out the door.
After finding my mom waiting for us in the school lobby, she loads myself, my 6-year-old sister, and barely 1 year old brother in the family van, making sure that we are all strapped in safely. We drive out of the parking lot into what we thought was freedom from another boring school day, how cool is our mom?! However, I was wrong. I catch my mom’s eyes in the rearview mirror when she says to us, “A very bad man, has done a very bad thing. He crashed a plane into a building, and we have to go get dad”
My 9-year-old brain couldn’t possibly comprehend the words that have just come out of my mom’s mouth. I knew the difference between good and evil, but a plane crashing into a building?! The day of freedom that I thought I just lucked into and that I had so badly wished for had quickly turned into a rescue mission. I looked at my younger siblings as we drove into Manhattan, not realizing that this will be a day that the world will never forget.
The drive down into the city feels like hours and minutes at the same time. Stop and go traffic, which even though is something to expect while driving into a major city, was different this time. People fleeing to safety while we were going into the belly of the beast. From this point of the drive, there´s not much that I remember. It could be because I was so young, or because my mind is trying to protect me from my own memories. What I do remember is when we can finally get out of the car.
We´re in a hole in the wall restaurant when my mom is hugging and crying with the waitress. ´´That´s weird´´ I think, still not truly understanding the true impact of what has just happened. ´´My mom doesn´t even know this lady, why is she hugging her? ´´ The full-figured woman with wild dark curly hair a thick accent and a gold cross dangling from her neck offered me and my sister free cherry Italian ice. Mom never let us have sweets, except for on our designated Saturday dessert nights. Maybe this was our lucky day after all?
Cell phones are down, bridges and roads are closed, the whole city in a state of emergency while billows of smoke and flames cover the sky, creating an apocalyptic nightmare and my dad, an electric union worker, can be anywhere in the entire city working. We sat there waiting, time no longer existing, watching my mom cry. Isn´t that weird? To watch your parent´s cry, I mean. Your rocks, your superheroes, the ones that pick you up when you´re down. What are you, a child supposed to do when the strongest person in the whole world is…crying?
That´s when it happens. Have you ever heard of the knight in shining armor that rides up on the white horse? Well, my knight and shining armor rolled up in a white construction van wearing timberland boots and a paint-stained pullover sweatshirt. I will never forget the moment of the sliding van door opening and my dad jumping out. My mom running to him and embracing my dad, both of them sobbing, when just a few seconds before she didn´t even know if he was still alive. My dad had to walk miles, crossing bridges by foot when finally, he was able to catch a ride from a complete stranger who decided to help a fellow man in need who was just trying to make it back to his family. This nameless stranger, this knight in shining armor will always be my hero, the one who brought my dad back to us. This day, although soon approaching its 20 year anniversary, will be an early childhood memory that I will never be able to forget.
Jules Woodman – K.R.O.
The window was huge but so fogged over with the breath of many bodies that only a small area directly in front of her was clear enough to see through. Using the sleeve of her red duffle coat she glanced sidewards to check that he wasn’t looking, before quickly wiping a bigger circle onto the window. If he saw her she knew he would tell her to stop dirtying her coat.
She shuffled forward on the plastic seat, her feet dangling, until she was on the edge and leant over to look out. She knew that before long she could hop down off the smelly, sticky seat and stand and look out of the fog free patch, her face so close that her own breath would fog up the window too. Now she could only see directly ahead. It was raining, it was always raining and the bright lights were hazy through the raindrops. Craning forward to get a better view, she could see coloured lights, some constant, flicking past and some suddenly on and then off again and rain, so much rain. Her circle of vision got smaller as the encroaching fog on the window made the circle smaller, glancing at him again, she wiped the window with her cuff once more.
He began the ritual of taking tissues from a packet in his pocket, pulling them out one by one and opening them in a neat pile on his lap. When he had enough he reached into the plastic carrier bag by his feet and brought out two brown paper bags. He passed the smaller of the bags to her, along with several tissues and a spare unused paper bag, before delving into the other bag and pulling out a warm, gelatinous pigs trotter. He slowly turned it around in his fingers, looking for the meatiest part, before sinking his teeth into it and tearing off the fatty meat, grease dripping down his fingers.
She looked away, her stomach doing a flip at the thought of eating a pigs trotter. Standing up so that she could place her paper bag on the seat, she carefully opened the spare bag and set it down next to the enticingly full one. She could see pink whiskers poking out of the top of the bag and carefully taking the first prawn out, with speed beyond her years she began shelling and deveining the delicious pink morsel, putting the waste in the empty bag and popping the prawn in her mouth.
As she chewed she imagined the little sea creature swimming deep in the ocean. See-through with its inners visibly moving as it swam. She was fascinated by the way its flesh turned pink when it was cooked and often wondered what she looked like under her own skin.
“Why don’t we eat people?” she asked. “Well some tribes that live far way do! They’re called cannibals “, he said “You do ask strange questions for such a little girl”. She decided to go to the library after school on Monday to read about cannibals and tribes and continued to shell and eat her delicious prawns.
Behind her people chatted and laughed, occasionally shouting across to each other. “Hey, Barry! What a result eh?” He wiped his fingers on the last tissue and tidied the mess into the plastic bag by his feet. Turning around he replied “Bostin weren’t it! About time too. Coventry next week though, that’ll be a tough un”
“Ya goowin Baz?”
“Nooo, we just do the home games don’t we bab?”
“I don’t take the little un away, bluenoses is one thing, wouldn’t trust any of the others”
She went back to the small, clear circle in the window. Now that she was standing she could see the cars below, stretching ahead as far as she could see, inching forward with their brake lights going on and off. She thought to herself how horrible it must be to have to travel in a car. So low and small, you wouldn’t be able to see much out of the small windows. Besides, who would you talk to and you definitely couldn’t eat pigs’ trotters or prawns or fish and chips.
He took out a big pink newspaper from inside his jacket and began reading. Before long the two lads sat on the seat behind them were peering over his shoulder and he started chatting with them about points and goal difference and whether or not Blues would be going up this season. She watched the cars and other buses and people walking on the pavements and wondered about see through insides and cannibals and what people tasted like and hoped that her sleeve wasn’t too dirty from wiping the window.
Hester Lott – A childhood memory.
The snow started around 2 that afternoon. My sister and my baby brother and I were having lunch around the rough wood kitchen table, my mother in a thick sweater and woolly hat as she fed the baby mashed home grown vegetables. The kitchen was slate-floored and the table stood in the middle of the room in front of the Aga cooker. From a smoke blackened beam above the table a calor gas lamp hung from a big brass hook, and on the mantelpiece stood an ornate, green glass oil lamp with a tall glass chimney, no doubt the spoils of a jumble sale in the village hall earlier in the year. My mother kept a large copper kettle permanently simmering on the back of the Aga, and often another big saucepan of hot water. To the left of the Aga a narrow door, divided in half like a stable door, opened onto the back garden and the shed housing the outside toilet. When my older sister noticed the snow whispering past our kitchen window she squealed and jumped up, making my little brother wave his arms in excitement and knock the bowl out of my mother´s hands. ‘It´s snowing, it’s snowing, it’s snowing ´sang my sister, climbing onto the window seat and puffing warm breath onto the window pane, `Can we go out? Please, oh please?!!’ and my mother laughed as she wiped the pureed vegetables off her skirt and the floor. ‘Of course we can. Give me a minute….’
The first fall was deep and soft and extraordinarily white. In the grey, heavy gloom of the afternoon the white shone and sparkled in the light from our windows onto the blanket of snow covering our front garden. I remember the feel of the snow under my boots stepping out of the front door. It was falling so fast it already came up to the tops of my little brother´s red wellies. My sister´s hat already had a shining crown of fluffy snow flakes, and when she put her head back to catch the flakes on her tongue, crystals landed on her eyelashes and made her blink and laugh.
The snow fell all night, and in the morning the cottage resembled a classic Christmas card, and we children were in heaven. And it stayed that way for two months.
During the long freeze our well was frozen so we had to go to our neighbour´s farm on horseback, carrying a milk churn, to bring water back from the tap in the farmyard, and the lanes were all impassable by car. The farmer brought us churns of milk on his tractor from time to time. The river at the bottom of the hill froze over. We learned to skate in the dark as my mother said that was the way to learn, by feeling your balance and the bite of the blade into the uneven surface of the ice, not using your eyes .
Reminiscing about this time many years later I mentioned what I thought was a commonplace in the family that that year in the cottage with no running water and no electricity was the best experience of my childhood. But my poor mother looked at me in horror. ´Oh my God, that was a terrible winter! I struggled to keep the house warm and provide decent food for you all. We had no money and the calor gas for the heater ran out and we couldn´t afford a new bottle, so we spent half of every day collecting wood in the forest and trying to dry it out beside the Aga. Don´t you remember? And we had no heating in the bedrooms …. It was so hard getting to sleep in the icy sheets, even with a hot water bottle, and there were ice ferns all over the insides of the windows when we woke up….. and going to the outside loo and finding ice on the surface of the water…… and with three small children to look after…. ‘
We moved into a rented house in a village in the spring, with electricity and radiators on the walls, even in the bedrooms, and water that came out of taps, and a washing machine! My mother was in heaven. That house had its disadvantages… but that is a story for another day.
Terri Mitchell -Tortillas and Trains
Tap! Tap! Tap! Tap! Tap!
That sound will be forever fixed in my mind. The sound of a fork beating against a plate… around 10 o’clock at night in any street in Spain you can hear this sound. It transports me immediately back to Summer evenings in ‘Porua, Santander’, outside ‘la casa de abuelita’ with all my Spanish friends eating ‘pipas’ in the square in the middle of some original Franco flats. Ah! The freedom we experienced after siesta going downstairs into the square to hang out all evening long with our friends we met up with year after year in the summer on our trips to visit family in Northern Spain.
Our Spanish adventure would start every summer holiday. The epic train journey from Bath to Santander 3 Days 900 kilometres as the crow flies.
“All aboard the boat train to Dover” We caught the Dover Calais Ferry. One year we even took a Hovercraft (which I remember as very noisy damp and quite uncomfortable.
Another year on the ferry the seas in the Channel were so rough that to my younger self’s annoyance the puzzle blocks I was trying to put together kept sliding from one side of the table to the other. It made putting Snow White next to the dwarves impossible! I remember hearing the conversation between a woman who went up to the café counter and her asking for a pot of tea only to be told politely that all crockery had smashed!
At Calais there was a train to Paris where we would have to change stations in quite a hurry as I remember. In France I remember the orange juice always sticks in my mind. It was something we didn’t normally have in the UK and tasted quite bitter with an aftertaste of pith. I am still quite fussy about orange juice to this day.
From Paris to Hendaye, on the Spanish border was the most exciting part of our journey. The ‘couchettes’ (sleeper car) 10 hours of fun and games, at least for my brother and I, for Mum, who was often travelling alone with us both, it must have seemed endless. Dad a train driver, to whom we owed the free train travel each year often joined us in Spain and travelled back with us home.
The fun began with this part of the journey, I a bossy older sister, 14 months separate my brother and I in age, and my brother a bit of a tear away with no fear of anything must have been enough to drive any parent mad and stretch their patience.
In the train carriage the two bench seats transformed to make four beds and had little curtains to pull across to give a little privacy. Once they were made up you were expected to go to sleep! Ha! Fat chance!
The sound of the train stations as we travelled down through La Republique have a distinctive sound through the tannoy as trains arrive. Bing, bong! This sound often woke us up at unearthly hours, the yellow glow in random stations. Sometimes there were sellers with baskets of refreshments and snacks coming up to the train window. “Go on,” said I to my younger sibling – “dare you to get off and back on again!”
My horror, now, at that dare sends shivers down my spine.
He duly jumped off the train waving at me…… Fortunately for me and him he didn’t dawdle and jumped smartly back on.
Horror and dread! How could I? Anything could have happened and how would we have found him, had he not been as nimble on his feet. Lost in France.
Eventually we would sleep only to be woken at the Spanish frontier by Guardia Civil making who had got on to check documents. They made their way menacingly along the train “passaportes señores”. Hendaye on the French side and Irun on the other, Next stop Bilbao.
Oh Bilbao! Bliss! My Big Spanish Family experience always stated here. Tio Pepe, Tia Julita and their 22, yes 22 Pekingese dogs.
Tia Julita, my Mum’s favourite Aunt had a wonderful story background. Apparently had escaped from the Civil War, pregnant, she crossed the Pyrenees by foot making her way to Paris to teach Piano, only to be trapped in wartime Nazi occupation of France and having to play piano for them. I always thought her a real heroine.
Their flat in the centre of Bilbao was blissful pandemonium, 22 yapping, panting, scratching dogs and music students who came for their piano practice with Tia Julia.
My favourite part of the stopover would be taking a bunch of the Pekingese (who had to be walked in small groups) with my Tio Pepe around Bilbao. The river Nervion, then a brown sludgy, smelly waterway, result of the industry in Franco’s boom town and nothing like the smart, hip cosmopolitan city with clear water running past the shining Guggenheim it is today.
We would always stop in a Ducados smoky bar, my Uncle would have a small ‘cortado’ and I a ‘mosto’ The chatter in Spanish bars is loud and raucous. It often felt to me then as if everyone was at odds with each other.
That one morning a silence fell on the bar immediately as two Guardia Civil with their comical black patent little ‘tricornio’ hats. They order a coffee, a shot of brandy and smoked a cigarette…… No one spoke, the sun shone smoky lines through the still, silent atmosphere in the bar, nobody looked up or moved. They left and the bar immediately came to life again!
The next part of the journey which was the part my brother and I either loved or loathed.
Feve or Alsa? “please let it be Feve!” we would beg Mum.
Feve being the most extensive narrow-gauge railway in Europe. Nowadays there is a luxury train travelling the same track and no wonder the views are spectacular of mountains, sea and rural Spain.
Alsa – the faster coach option but being pre motorways it was a twisting turning torturous coastal route filled with Ducados smoking passengers, my brother and I were inevitably always sick.
Feve – oh joy! “Thanks Mum”, we would chime together. “Yes we know it takes all day but we don’t care”. Being on the train meant we could get up from our seats, look out of the window pulled down seeing our first glimpses of the blue sea, sticking our hands out to pick blackberries as the train rumbled past hedges at an alarmingly slow pace.
The inside of the carriages was divided into 1st 2nd and 3rd class. On Dad’s ‘free’ ticket we were allowed travel in 1st class. It was what I imagined the Orient Express to be like. Armchair-like seats bolted to the floor, lampshades with tassles bolted to tables – very elegant. It did take an age, but it was a marvellous journey and one that has instilled a love of train journeys in me for life.
At last Santander – place of our yearly pilgrimage – place of more loud, large family gatherings at ‘abuelitas’. Place of warm sun, childhood friends and the ….
‘Tap, tap, tap, tap’ of tortilla francesas!
Rieke Schroeder – Swirl
I had been waiting for this day for weeks. My birthday has always generated a feeling of absolute happiness in me. I perfectly remember the emotions I went to bed with the night before and the desire to wake up the next day. I really do not even know how this importance was created for me nor do I remember that my parents particularly emphasized it. But I think it was more the feeling that this day was my day. So was the 4th birthday for me.
I woke up earlier than usual. I could smell the scent of sawdust in in my nose and feel the moisture of autumn. I approached the window and could see the garden full of leaves of all colors and the grass covered with apples under the trees. I knew exactly what I wanted to wear, I took out the blue and white checkered dress that my grandmother had sewn for me with some pink stockings. My hair was not combed, I did not care that it got tangled on my head, I took a rubber band and gathered it up as best I could.
The silence in the house was total so I put on my pink wellington boots and went out through the middle of the construction site. Everything was wrapped in plastic, the winter garden that was being built next to our living room was almost finished, but the final details were still missing, including the glass doors to the garden.
I was running all over the garden, approaching every corner, jumped into a pile of sawdust that had been left from the construction site the day before in the corner. Afterwards I took my pink bucket, went through the garden picking up leaves and collecting apples to feed the sheep. They came running when they saw me with my pink bucket full of apples approaching the fence. I always felt a great pleasure to be able to help animals and feed them, I treated them as if they were all my pets. Impossible to remember how long I was there, but suddenly I saw my mother at the window waving at me.
I ran to the entrance, pushed aside the plastic tarp, sat down on the floor and threw down (as good practice) my boots. When I got up and turned around the corner my mother started singing happy birthday to me, and the big wooden table in the living room was covered with presents. In the middle of it all was the most important thing, my birthday cake, a marble cake covered with a layer of powdered sugar and decorated with lots of Smarties I remember the feeling of pure happiness at this moment, I felt that this was the best moment in the world and even though it was pure chaos all around, it did not affect my feeling of this wonderful day.
My mother grabbed me in her arms, I caught my breath and let it out forcefully to blow out my four candles on the cake.
Sue Gibson – 1975
Where it began, a tiny village in North Yorkshire with a population of only 480 or so people. This tiny parish is home to the most beautiful village church where Wordsworth who lived at the aptly named Gallows Hill, married his local sweetheart and some say he wrote his most famous poem about our village. Here, the birthplace of aviation, amongst the beautiful little lanes with odd names like The Dolly Walks and The Butts by the stunning River Derwent, is where I grew up.
Summer holidays, the days seemed so much longer, and it seemed hotter back then. Days spent drinking cider and barley wine obtained by persuading older teenage holiday makers to go to the off sales window at the pub to buy it for us. Then sleeping it off on the Mill Hill before you dared go home. Drinking water from the springs in the Mill Pond or building dens in the afore mentioned Dolly Walks. We would gamble our pocket money, 2p and 1p coins only, playing 3 card brag and pontoon.
Yes, those were the days but there were darker times and along with the good there was so much dread and fear.
It was 1975, I was twelve years old and would turn thirteen after the Summer. My dad was a tyrant at times, and he ruled our house with an iron rod. We were all afraid of him, nobody more so than my mum. The only person he did not seem to intimidate was my Gran, his mother, she would defend us and often had to.
My friend Jo and I were always trying to come up with ways to disguise the fact that we had been smoking, she made me laugh with her ‘inventions’, one day a pair of gloves, that didn’t work, the stale smoke smell lingered. Another day, eyebrow tweezers, squeezing the cigarette trying to smoke without touching it, another time, a pin stuck in the filter. We laughed at our attempts, but we were always caught out, but still we smoked. Clueless rebels that we were.
We saved all our spare change and would ‘club together’ to feed our habit. In those days we could pool our resources and buy a pack of ten ciggies and a box of matches and still have change from 50p. When I look back, I think I must have had some masochistic tendencies in my youth, I never learned my lesson.
We had pooled our resources and made a successful purchase at the village shop; Mrs Pick & Mix never doubted our fake shopping list which invariably would be a blank piece of paper that we used to read from as if we had never heard of ten sovereign. We often switched between the brand our family smoked so as not to be suspected. I must explain the name Pick & Mix; Mrs Dawson was her name and we called at her shop every day at some point. She was always picking her nose and would scoop out your sweets of choice to weigh them with her bare hands, hence ‘pick & mix’. We still ate them which is cause for concern. Another memory that stays with me, she had a Siamese cat that wandered at will around the shop and could often be seen sat on the various fresh produce, hence the statement ‘Mrs Dawson … Do you know there’s a cat on your cheese?’ This still makes me laugh when I reminisce.
That day I remember so well, we’d had a ball, out in the fields raising hell, drinking, and basically enjoying the sun. The freedom of your early teens is a feeling as an adult you can never recapture. We felt free when we were out and about, invincible, but then 5 o’clock came all too soon. Teatime we called it, there was no evening dinner then, not in our house. I always wanted to drag my heels and go home slowly but if I were late, I would get a clip if he was in so I would invariably run.
We had shared the cigarettes and had 4 left each, we’d eek them out so that we had plenty left for the week. Sometimes we would just share one, ensuring they would last longer. I had mine hidden down the waist band of my jeans and Jo took the matches so all I had to do was hide them well when I got home.
We had an outhouse on the side of our home that housed the coal house. I sneaked in via the outhouse door and there, on the shelf to the right, I hid my precious cargo down into the bottom of one of my winter boots, he would never think to look in there …. Would he?
I entered the house he wasn’t home from work so that was a relief as I was late. I sat and watched tv for a while, he arrived home and we must have had an unusually uneventful tea as I can only recall the one vivid memory that I am describing here, he must have been in a good mood that evening, for a while anyway.
I was allowed back out after tea and off I went to call for Jo, we went back down the village and met up with our friends. I was allowed out until 8pm, the others were allowed out later, but I didn’t dare complain, so just before the curfew, I set off for home.
I walked in the house and headed straight upstairs, my feet had not hit the top step when I froze, ‘Susan, get down here’ he bellowed, oh no what now, I always seemed to be in trouble. ‘Now’ he bawled. I knew that tone and ran like the wind downstairs. My life flashed before me as I entered the room. There in front of me was a perfect little packet containing 4 Sovereign cigarettes, the treasure that I thought I had hidden so well. To this day I don’t know how he’d found them, but he had and there they were. Mum was pleading with him to just leave it, but no off he went on his usual tirade, there was a cuff around the head, then I was astounded when these immortal words left his lips ……… ‘if you love them so much, you can bloody well eat them’. Mum nearly passed out, but I thought, if that’s the worst it could get, go for it.
With much aplomb I pulled out the first cigarette, secretly mourning the loss, and bit the end off, I didn’t eat the filter, I didn’t think that could possibly be ciggie eating etiquette, so I bit the other end and stood defiantly chewing as if it were the best Pick & Mix had to offer. I recall making noises as if it were yummy but inside, I felt sick. He made me eat all four, all my hard won treasure and all the time I pretended I didn’t care when deep down, I thought, what am I going to do tomorrow? His face was a picture, the fact that I was enjoying my feast so much annoyed him more. I finished the final cigarette and was dismissed to my room, no supper, not even a drink to wash them down with. I felt good, his belt never left his waist and that was a first for me. I usually got the belt for every step of the stairs but not tonight. I had turned a corner in the punishment stakes. I sneaked to the bathroom and put my head under the tap and washed away the acrid taste of tobacco and nicotine, tomorrow was another day, I still had 35p left and Mrs Pick & Mix was always open ……………
Gisela Gibbon – The Budgie
Micky, as I decided to call the budgie, was only a few days old. His little heart was beating hard in the palm of my hand, so fast, as if afraid, but also oddly trusting. He was tiny, about as long as my fingers, his very early blue feathers looking scruffy and prickly, with a head seemingly far too large for his tiny body, his neck thin. His Mum was ill and had to be put down, the man said, without any further detail. And I was seven years old, feeling big and powerful like a guardian angel, sent to look after little animals. But I was only allowed to choose one out of all the birds, trapped as they were in the cages of the budgie breeder in our village. I must admit I didn’t like the cages much, nor the man with the big belly and the big neck and the big hands that would surely squash any little bird in his care.
“You like him?” He asked me, frowning a little, so I wasn’t sure if it was okay to answer that I did. I looked at my mother who also frowned, frowning like that definitely a grown-up thing that was never a good sign, often followed by some punishment for mysterious wrong-doings. My mother looked at the man and then at me. “He’s a bit ugly, isn’t he? Are you sure you don’t want one of these?” She pointed to another cage, with yellow ones, a bit older, kind of sleek already and ready for new homes. But it was Micky’s heart in my palm I felt, and surely the man wouldn’t have handed the little thing to me if it wasn’t ok? And it was Micky whose eyes looked at me, and I looked back, and I just knew, we needed each other.
The man smiled at my mother. “Yeh, he is a bit small for his age, isn’t developing as fast as the others, might be a she, it’s too early to tell. He might be a bit poorly, he’s an odd one, he is.”
That settled it. If Micky was sick, I absolutely had to have him. I knew I could make little animals better, I just knew it, though I had no proof of that at all, just a feeling. I looked at my mother, no longer caring about her frown, I was too sure, this was a desperate situation and I had to come to the rescue! “I’d like this one, Mum, he needs me, I just know he does.”
Micky seemed to understand every word, he even rested his head on my fingertips. There was love flowing between him and me, I didn’t really know that this might be normal, as I’d never felt it before, I’d never had a pet before.
“Alright.” The man waited for the agreeable nod from my mother. “He’s a bit too young to come home with you yet, but if you still want him and he’s still alright and hasn’t died, you can come by and pick him up in a week.” He looked at my mother again. “You can have the little scrap for free, he might not last that long and break your daughter’s heart, but they seem to get on, don’t they.”
My mother’s frown had softened to a surprised-at-me face, I liked that face on her, those rare moments when she didn’t seem to be in control. My mother was a famously strong woman who could be quite stern, but when she looked soft like that, it was lovely. I could feel myself breathing a bit easier. I would have this budgie. It was a whole new adventure! I could have a pet all for myself! I wished I didn’t have to wait, but I couldn’t break the magic and moan about it now, had to be sensible and grown-up about it. “Please don’t give him to anyone else.” I looked at the man who suddenly looked quite friendly and he took the bird out of my hands gently and ever so quickly, experienced, leaving the little feet sticking out between his fingers just right. I thought that was quite amazing, really, those big sausage fingers of his holding that tiny little baby just right. I sniffed my fingers, to see if they smelled of baby bird still, and they did, it was nice, made me feel like it really had been real.
It was arranged that we could pick him up in one week, if he was still alive then, but we got the call on day 5, I counted, the man said he had to change the appointment and if it was okay with us we could pick Micky up before his dinner time. I was so excited, I thought my heart might jump out my chest, it didn’t feel that different to the budgie’s heart, really.
Micky already looked a lot different! His feathers were a bit downier, fluffier, and he didn’t mind being put in the little box with breathing holes in for the journey home. “I don’t know what you did with him, Gisela,” the man smiled, “but I could swear he picked up after your visit. Have fun with him, and as he’s so young still, keep him warm, don’t have him near a cold window, will you, and make sure you cover the cage up at night.
We got home and there it was waiting for him in my room, a huge shiny red and silver cage with a clean sandy base, with toys and a bell and a mirror and clean feeders. We put him in there, but, as soon as my mother had gone downstairs I knew that Micky needed company and a cuddle! He didn’t seem to mind me picking him up, I made sure I left his feet poking out between my fingers just like I’d seen the man do. I sat down on my bed and talked to him and stroked him, and let him nibble me and crawl into my sleeve, a habit he developed from then on. He’d walk all the way up my arm inside my sleeve, and come to the surface again through the collar at my neck, just under my chin and chirp away all happily. Once his wings had grown enough, he’d fly around to explore my room, sit on the lampshade, on my books, and balance on the end of my pencil when I was trying to do my homework. He’d hop out of his cage when I got back from school, and he’d chatter back at me from behind the cloth when it was bedtime. I taught him to say Micky that sounded like ‘Icky’ and at full moon I’d sit with him on my shoulder when we were supposed to sleep and look at it together through the window. It was a love thing. He lived for a few years more still, he was always a little delicate and died earlier than most healthy budgies. I’d like to think he was happy though.
Dika Guis – Ninety-degree-angle
She remembers the pain. The excruciating, penetrating pain. The sharpness of it; burning its way from her ankle to her upper calf. Liquid fire, in her right lower leg.
The inability to move, to twist or to change position; to find any kind of relief and the accompanying feeling of helplessness. The utter despair of being unable to control or change the situation, to not have the words to make clear the pain she is in, or to be able to ask for help. She just passively accepts the pain, as if it is in some way normal. And maybe, for her, it is.
It isn’t the pain that renders her speechless though. Nor is she gagged or otherwise prevented from speaking. The fact of the matter is that she simply does not have the words. She is just eighteen months old.
The physical, visceral memory of pain is accompanied by one single image. An image, even now, over 40 years later, is still so clear, she can almost touch it. It is seared into her brain in blacks and greys.
The image shows a toddler, in a bed, with a foot fixed to a contraption in the air. The right leg making a ninety degree angle from hip to ankle. The feeling of helplessness, of not being able to move, is completely intertwined with this image. As is the memory of the pain.
This is her very first memory.
There must have been pain in her life before that moment, for her to accept it without crying, but she doesn’t have earlier memories of pain or of anything else.
Her life is, in a way, defined by this moment, this memory. It will influence her life in ways that are both profound and (for a long time) invisible. The helplessness will lead her to become a helper, but never a receiver-of-help. The lack of control will make her a control-freak, believing that, if only she can control everything, nothing bad will happen. The pain that was inflicted on her, a violation of her physical self, will make her fear close connection, without understanding why.
It will take her years to arrive at a place in her life where she will feel safe enough to look inward. To find the patterns and the fear and pain on which they are based and to begin to let them go. Where she will start to stop being so afraid of being hurt. Where she will start to enjoy life. A little. And then a lot.
And the irony? This memory is actually factually incorrect. Yes, she was in a bed and yes, she was in pain. But her leg was never suspended. The leg that was tied up in the air? Belonged to the little boy in the hospital bed next to her. Where she was recuperating after reconstructive surgery.
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Esther Krizmancic – WITH FEARS AND HOPES
Tap, tap, tap.
“Wake up. Shhhhhh. Quickly, you need to get dressed.”
My earliest memory. It was the middle of the morning/night and I was only three years old. Mother had a serious look on her face that I had never before experienced but would become commonplace in forthcoming years.
As she dressed me in very warm clothing, finally buttoning up my woollen coat, I asked her where we were going. She responded, “Where there are lots of toys”.This reply achieved her intended design to placate and garner my compliance.
We left my grandmother’s house with stealth and exactitude closing the back door quietly and walking out through the courtyard onto the blackened street. A dark silhouette of a man and a small girl, about my age, appeared across the road. Mother clearly knew these persons but offered no explanation, only a gentle warning glance to remain silent. My adherence can only be explained by the anticipatory reward of which she had promised earlier and the impending adventure that was before us.
We walked for hours in the cold dark night leaving behind the village of my childhood and crossing into fields of winter crops, then through damp woodlands and finally into the flat grasslands peppered with occasional native bushes. These larger plants would prove to be our saviours. As I looked ahead, mother quietly turned to me placing her index finger over her lips silently mouthing shhhh. She motioned that I squat and remain still. While we hid behind the prickly bush I managed to see through the gaps between the branches at what appeared to be a soldier with a rifle over his shoulder. To a three year old, this was high adventure. No room for fear only anticipation.
The silhouette left our line of sight and disappeared into the clear starry night. This was our chance. Quick. Scuttle across the hill and out of sight again into flatlands beyond. Our hearts were pounding loudly and white fear was clearly evident on both adult’s faces. The other little girl was asleep in her father’s arms. How I wished I could be her for that one moment.
The remainder of the journey was uneventful but gruelling. My three year old’s feet throbbed with pain but was also encouraged by expectation. The adults no longer spoke in whispers. They talked of being united with their respective partners and the imminent freedom that would come from their act of dare and courage.
After many hours of walking up and down unfamiliar hills and rocky dirt roads we arrived at our destination. There was that sentry again! This time he had an accomplice but neither one had that earlier air of menace. This was the 1950’s, post war Europe. People like us appeared daily at border towns seeking refuge from poverty, political insecurity and memories of loss and inconsolable grief.
Come to think of it, not much has changed seventy years later. People are still fleeing their beloved homes with only hope in their hearts.
born in Reading, England, to the most incredible woman, Gwendoline Ethel. Kind, selfless, compassionate, funny and totally inclusive of all people in all social settings and who, since before I was even born, proved her love and devotion to me with the willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice. Due to the complexities of my birth, she was asked an inconceivable question by the medical staff, to which she gave an inconceivable answer. She was told that they may be faced with the decision to save either her or the baby, not both. Which was it to be? She replied “save the baby”. Born by caesarean section and baptised at birth should I not survive, due to some miracle or the will of a greater good, we both survived. This level of selflessness was a core trait of her character throughout her whole life.
Of course, every child has the right to be bias toward their mum, but she really was one of a kind. Born blind due to ocular albinism, she had a challenging start in life which possibly gave her the strength to face, head on, the many challenges to come. An operation on her eyes whilst she was still young enabled her sight to be restored and, although grateful for the sight with which she was gifted, she lived with very poor eyesight for her entire life.
Large families were not uncommon in the early 1920’s and she shared her parents with 15 siblings(!). Known to all of her friends as Gwen and to her brothers and sisters as Gwennie, mum made friends easily. People were drawn to her honesty, friendship, compassion and high principles. She did not suffer fools gladly and she was a very good judge of character. Something I only appreciated later, in hindsight, as I certainly didn’t appreciate her sharing her sentiments over my own choice of friends during my teenage years. Her principles, integrity and honesty definitely shaped my life, and it is upon her values that I have built my own.
When I came into the world my mother was married to a man who, later into their marriage, developed schizophrenia. The illness was progressive and therefore something that she had to deal with, in greater and lesser degrees, for many years. Aside from the fractious energy he created on almost a daily basis, his volatile and dangerous behaviour sometimes caused her to fear for her life. This is a life she endured for way too long, but it was only when the safety of her children was compromised, that she left him. It was after a particularly distressing episode late one evening that she roused me and my sister from our beds, we dressed and, in the dead of night, the three of us took a five-hour train journey from our then home in Lancashire to the home of my older, married sister in Oxfordshire. We took with us only the clothes we stood up in and the contents of my mum’s (small) handbag. There was nothing to be discussed, nothing to be decided upon. I knew that my mother had no choice. A drastic and dangerous situation needed drastic action. I was nine years old and my sister was 14.
I never saw him again.
My married sister was a 19-year-old mother of a two-year-old living in a small two-bedroom flat, so there were now three adults and three children under her roof. Initially, and for quite some time after, we were completely dependent upon the kindness of others for food, clothes and shelter and, once Social Services acknowledged our cramped living conditions, we were finally provided with a home of our own. With this help, and the tenacity of my mother, we slowly carved out a new life.
I am the youngest of four girls and I grew up with two of my siblings in a loving household. The fourth sibling was already married, a mother (only just, as she was pregnant with her first when my mother was carrying me) and living in a home of her own when I came along. The group dynamics of the family was caring and loving. Us sisters had our individual hobbies and interests, would playfully tease each other mercilessly, bicker on occasion … but we loved each other. We were all loved equally and treated the same. I was never made to feel like I was any different. But I was different. My skin was the colour of cappuccino coffee, whereas the skin of my sisters was white. But, at home, I was never given any reason to question it.
I have a different biological father to that of my sisters. The tall, handsome black man who would occasionally come to the house and take me out, I referred to as ‘Uncle Phil’. I enjoyed the drives in the car and the soda pop and crisps in the pub garden. To me, he was just a friend of the family who seemingly had more of a vested interest in me than in my sisters. It wouldn’t have taken a genius to figure out who he was to me, he was after all the only dark-skinned person that our family knew. I guess I probably knew subconsciously that he was my biological father, but I already had a father so I saw no need to question the situation … I just enjoyed the car rides and the treats!
I saw the man that she married as my father and my sisters as my sisters. Nothing more, nothing less. I saw Phil as he was portrayed … a friend of the family and I never questioned that.
It wasn’t until I was eight years old that my mother shared with me Phil’s true identity. As I got older, I have felt some lack of understanding over why she handled this whole period in the way that she did. Allowing this non-committal relationship. But now, I admire her for handling it in this way. I don’t think she could have done better by handling it differently.
Also, with the wisdom of advancing years, this whole situation has given me greater appreciation for the man I called Dad. Despite his illness and the disfunction and heartache it brought to the family, he had taken me in as his own and he was a constant father figure throughout my younger years. For that he has my love and admiration.
When we moved back down south, I was now geographically closer to Phil and our relationship grew. We spent more time together and although we had an unspoken father/daughter respect for each other, we were more like friends than father/daughter and would socialise in pubs and clubs at his favourite haunts on the Cowley Road in Oxford. However, even well into my twenties, he knew where I felt child-like joy and, whenever the funfair was in town, he always made a point of asking if his baby girl wanted to go with her dad.
Phil passed away in December 1996. Mum passed away 14 months later at the age of 72. I was 33 years old. Even now, some 22 years later, the loss of mum feels raw.
Colin Lyne – The Accident
Divorce is an ugly business. And worse if it drags on. Our parents were at it for eight years. Like one of those sieges in Medieval times, there would be short bursts of aggression followed by months or years when nothing much would happen. The endless lulls were probably the worst part. The atmosphere at home was tense and usually polite as we waited for the next onslaught. And, like the peasants working the farms around the besieged city, we would all carry on with our daily lives, pretending that everything was perfectly normal.
The day of the accident was my turn on the bread round, and so a bright moment in that year’s stand-off.
At 6 a.m. I was standing on the front step, watching an orange daybreak coming through the trees behind the Hackneys’ house across the road. Mum had given me my breakfast and now I was waiting for Dad to bring the van back.
The first and last bits of the day’s driving were a cloak and dagger affair. To get out of town we had to drive past the Mother’s Pride bread factory, where Dad had just picked up the van. Drivers were not allowed to carry passengers so, as we passed the factory buildings, I had to duck down out of sight.
By the time we reached the turning at the graveyard on the Crediton road, I sat back up and we both chuckled at our success at having once again fooled the powers that be at Mother’s Pride.
I should say something about the van, I suppose, as that is where most of the day’s events happened. It was a red Bedford with sliding doors and the words Mother’s Pride on the side. It only had one seat – the driver’s. Next to that was an oblong wooden box fixed to the floor, with a flap on the top. This was where Dad put his flask and newspaper. He also kept a surreptitious cushion in there – “For my back – should they ask”. It was in fact for the stowaway helper, of course. The box was uncomfortably hard.
By the time we started the deliveries the sun was starting to climb, building up for a scorcher. We slid back the doors and got the air conditioning going.
We did the first few stops along the main road and then veered off down into the green heart of central Devon. Here narrow lanes joined a network of villages with unlikely names – Zeal Monachorum, Down St Mary, Morchard Bishop… – that no one south of Crediton had ever heard of. All the roads in this part of Devon have tall hedges which turn them into leafy open tunnels. With the steep drops and climbs the drive was a roller coaster. “Ready, Johnny?” Dad said as a hump-back bridge appeared ahead. He picked up speed and our stomachs jumped as we flew over it. At the same time, I had to grip the edges of the box. It was shiny and the cushion slipped around quite a bit.
“Coming into Bow…Cup of tea, Johnny?” Dad said at 10.30.
Mrs. Daniels lived in a big house on the edge of Bow.
“’E’s a lovely boy, Ken. Just like ‘is Dad,” she said as she held the door open. Mrs. Daniels’ house smelt of freshly baked cake.
“I’ll get yer tea, Ken. Johnny’ll ‘ave some sponge I expect.”
Dad sat at the kitchen table, smiling broadly. Like all the country women, Mrs. Daniels wore a loose dress and apron but at ten years old even I could tell she had a good figure. Dad always stopped at her house and in all the times I was there I never saw a Mr. Daniels.
When we got to Morchard Bishop, we stopped for lunch. We went around to the back of the van and Dad opened the doors. He slid out the savoury tray on the bottom shelf and took out two pasties. Then came the cakes. We had to be quick choosing because once the wasps got wise, they’d be swarming.
I took my jam doughnut round to the front, slapping away the first of the wasps. To eat lunch, we had to sit with the doors closed but we didn’t mind because it was only ten minutes.
There were four more villages in the afternoon and the last stop was at New Buildings – a row of farm cottages built in the 1890s. We dropped off Mrs. Hubbard’s two plain white sliced and were finished around 3pm. By now the day was at its hottest and the doors were slid right back. The breeze was lovely.
The roads around New Buildings are flat but wind all around the between the farms…
…anyway, Dad wasn’t going very fast but after one turning, he looked around to find he was on his own. He slammed on the brakes and stared at the empty box. I had disappeared into thin air.
I just remember the happy chit chat we were having and then sliding too far to one side when we turned the corner. Two seconds later I was still on my cushion, surrounded by vegetation. There were a couple of brambles but otherwise it was quite comfortable.
Dad was shouting and screaming as he lifted me out of the hedge. He carried me back to the van, sat me down on the box and examined my wounds – four scratches. The one on my knee was bleeding a bit.
“Oh, my God! What will your mother say?” He said it three times before firmly closing my door.
“All right, Johnny?” He kept asking as we drove back at a snail’s pace. “Oh! Thank God! You could ‘ave been killed!” He repeated that twenty times.
“All right, Johnny? Careful with yer knee!” he said as I ducked down past Mother’s Pride.
When we got home, he carried me inside. “E’s all right!” he shouted when he saw my mother’s look of horror.
Over dinner that evening the five of us sat around the table going over all the details of what happened. My brother went through all the calculations of the chances of me being crushed by a combine harvester or breaking this bone or that. My sister just swung her legs around under the table and giggled. Mum beamed – what a story to tell the neighbours! Dad kept sighing happily and shaking his head: “Thank God Johnny’s all right!”
…Yes, that was quite some truce and it must have lasted a couple of days at least…
Amanda Gaynor – It is not until later that you realise.
Everyone had them, well those who had money. And how I envied them. What I would have given for a brand new rainbow set of pencils, carefully graded by tone and hue, with sharp needle-points of luminescent intensity. Pure pigment to dignify even the most rudimentary of sketches, highlight a map or biology diagram. Mine were Crayola, blunt ended, infant school wax, prone to softening, blobbing and flaking in the claustrophobic summer heat of the classroom. Oh for the sleek sophistication of the red graffitied tin, dripping its brand carelessly across its super saturated, pristine mountain scene. I loved the smoothness of the metal case, its flatness, its scarlet mouth gaping as you eased up the lid, the faint jiggle of pencils, the hint of fresh sawn pine.
“You can use them if you want” And I did. As often as I could. The Caran D’Ache girls with their matching plaits and viridian ribbons. It was they only thing they ever said to me. It was more than enough.
The grey and white Ford Anglia, front-wheel squelched up on the kerb, bum out on the lane, meant Gran was here, at last, in time for sponge-cake and candles. Squat, square Gran, she could have been a twin for the Giles’ cartoon one. Replace the pillar box slit grimace of the former for a smile and that was her. Piles of soft flesh trussed tightly into her corset gave an unexpected firmness to her cuddles.
“Happy Birthday!” I stayed burrowed in the warm comfort of her bingo wings, relishing the affection of unbounded love. Love was in scant supply at our place. Tension and discord, on the other hand….Seven candles dripping onto the fresh cocoa butter icing.
“Make a wish!” Commanded my mother as she pushed melting icing back onto a still warm cake, fresh from the oven.
Gran’s bag sagged beside her on an empty chair. Capacious soft scratched tan, unzipped as ever and threatening to teeter off the edge of the worn rushing. She reached for a tissue to dab off the crumbs and faint smear of icing, puckering her lips and arching her eyebrows. The pace was interminable. A ritual for everything and everything in its time. My mother scarcely concealed her impatience, she had the evening milking to get to.
“More tea?” the kettle simmered on the range.
Tim squirmed, surreptitiously running his finger round the far side of the cake, gouging and gorging, picking off the Smarties thinking no one would see. If you were five and a boy you had impunity.
“D’you have any sugar?”
“Somewhere..” She gritted her teeth and turned her back.
Gran winked, in that slow wink way, rummaged in her bag, brought out a card and a tissue wrapped present. Card first, pin on the badge ‘7 today!’.
‘So grown up’ she cooed and plastered me with another kiss. A perfect lipstick tattoo on my forehead. I admired the childish horse image, smiling out at me coquettishly with cartoon eyes and supersized lashes whilst watching the red second hand on the kitchen clock stutter round the face. When would be polite to reach for the gift?
“This is what you’re waiting for!” Her arm encircled me. Her face expectant.
Already in my hands it felt wrong, too light, too soft -too floppy. My eyes were smarting and heat surging up through me. I tarried, fighting for control.
There it was in all its glory, a slinky, double layered, chiffon nightie, with rosebud trims. A dull salmon.
My throat contracted for an eternity “Thanks Gran”, I ducked the obligatory kiss, she mustn’t see.
“What is it? Tell me?” Her eyes had softened, saddened, the lines deepened. Confusion vice-gripped me. Pulling me in, she prized it out of me. “I wanted you to look like a girl for once” she murmured as she teased at the tendrils on my forehead. I sobbed, buried against her stays. Hot snotty nosed howls. How could I explain that it wasn’t the wrongness of the gift that wracked me?
She left a brown ten shilling note on the table. And there it stayed. Till one day it wasn’t.